The University of Maryland is one of many schools around the country facing federal scrutiny over the way it reports gives and donations from foreign institutions and donors.
The University of Maryland is one of many schools around the country facing federal scrutiny over the way it reports gives and donations from foreign institutions and donors. (Kim Hairston / Baltimore Sun)

The U.S. Department of Education has opened an investigation into whether the University of Maryland is properly reporting its foreign gifts and contracts to the federal government, new documents show, part of a broader clampdown on university reporting practices.

Provost Mary Ann Rankin sent a letter to senior university officials this week informing them of the probe. The Education Department wants College Park administrators to turn over a slew of documents by the end of the month. Among the requests: all records of gifts and contracts with a foreign entity since 2014, specifically those concerning China, Qatar and Russia.

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A Sept. 26 letter to university president Wallace Loh states that the department is “concerned” the school’s current reporting practices “may not fully capture” all of these agreements.

University spokeswoman Katie Lawson wrote in an emailed statement that “once the university learned we were not reporting this information, we worked quickly to come into compliance.”

“We have been in compliance since January 2019, which was the next reporting deadline after we discovered we were not in compliance,” she wrote. “We plan to work with federal officials in a transparent and timely manner to fully resolve these issues.”

Education Department officials declined to comment.

The University of Maryland is one of a handful of schools, including Georgetown and Rutgers universities, the department is investigating. College administrators across the country say there’s been a lack of clarity from the federal government regarding how schools should report foreign gifts, leading to confusion and inconsistencies.

“It’s hard to know if you’re missing the mark if you don’t know where the mark is,” said Steven Bloom, director of government relations at the American Council on Education. “The law is ambiguous and confusing.”

Deputy Secretary of Education Mitchell “Mick” Zais testified before a Senate subcommittee in February, acknowledging that the department has not issued formal regulations on the statute concerning foreign gift reporting. Instead he said, the department has issued various guidance to schools on their reporting responsibilities. But the last guidance letter was sent 15 years ago, in October 2004.

About 3,700 institutions are required to follow this guidance, Zais said, yet fewer than 3% said in their most recent reports that they had received any foreign gifts or contracts. There appears to be big variations in how schools choose to report.

“Foreign government spending on U.S. schools is effectively a black hole, as there is a lack of reporting detailing the various sources of foreign government funding,” according to a recent Senate report on China’s impact on the U.S. education system.

The University of Maryland investigation comes amid heightened concern about foreign entities’ influence on American schools, with a particular focus on China.

College Park is home to the first-ever “Confucius Institute” to open in the United States. Dozens of these Chinese government-funded centers now exist on college campuses, with a focus on language education and cultural programming.

Nearly 70% of schools that received more than $250,000 from the Chinese entity that manages the Confucius Institutes failed to properly report it to the Education Department, according to the Senate report.

A federal website that lists institutions’ foreign gifts from 2012 through 2018 shows none reported by the University of Maryland.

“Schools have been trying to comply, and they’re unsure about what their obligations are,” Bloom said. “In absence of that, it’s hard to know what you’re supposed to report.”

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