Education

Grassley warns 'foreign thieves' targeting University of Iowa

He cites concerns over China's ties to UI Confucius Institute

The Pentacrest on the campus of the University of Iowa including the Old Capitol Building (center), Macbride Hall (top left), Jessup Hall (bottom left), Schaeffer Hall (top right), and MacLean Hall (bottom right) in an aerial photograph. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette/file photo)
The Pentacrest on the campus of the University of Iowa including the Old Capitol Building (center), Macbride Hall (top left), Jessup Hall (bottom left), Schaeffer Hall (top right), and MacLean Hall (bottom right) in an aerial photograph. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette/file photo)
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IOWA CITY — Using his status as leader of the U.S. Senate Finance Committee to hold a hearing this week on the threats that “foreign thieves” pose to American taxpayer-funded research, Iowa Republican Chuck Grassley highlighted his concerns Monday that China was attempting to target the University of Iowa.

In setting the stage for a hearing Wednesday, Grassley distributed an op-ed citing China as the “most prolific” of the foreign actors trying steal intellectual property.

“Whether in Iowa, or in other parts of the country, we must remind ourselves that there is an ongoing threat to taxpayer-funded research that targets American academic institutions, including the University of Iowa,” he wrote.

Grassley warned of the Chinese government’s efforts to infiltrate America’s educational system through Confucius Institutes, which are “directly funded by the United Front Work Department of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China.” He said the centers are “used as propaganda outlets to influence a pro-China view of the world.”

He noted that “the University of Iowa has hosted one on its campus since 2006.”

The UI Confucius Institute is among 100-plus teaching and research centers underwritten by the Chinese government that have opened on American campuses since 2005. Iowa’s has served more than 2,200 students since 2007 through Chinese language and culture courses, research, community programs and outreach.

It recently started offering Chinese language classes at West, Liberty and City high schools in Johnson County.

As some lawmakers nationally have slammed the institutes for their close ties to China, some campuses have closed them — including Texas A&M and the University of North Florida.

UI President Bruce Harreld last summer announced the UI Confucius Institute — in light of state budget cuts — was among seven campus centers slated to close. UI officials later said the centers could instead seek “alternative, external funding to replace general education funding” to stay open.

“Each of these centers provide valuable outreach and service to Iowans, including the Confucius Institute,” UI spokeswoman Jeneane Beck said in December.

The UI Confucius Institute’s general fund budget for fiscal 2018 was $188,586. Administrators said in December they believed they found a way to stay open for at least five years without a UI contribution. Though the UI institute was supposed to close by July, curriculum coordinator Xi Ma said interest on $100,000 from its headquarters that went into an endowment could sustain it for now.

Officials with the institute Monday directed questions from The Gazette to the UI communications team. The university did not immediately say whether it has any response to Grassley’s concerns.

In his op-ed, Grassley noted the UI defense of the institute, reporting its dean of International Programs said the partnership “allows us to make very dollar go further.” And he referenced the UI institute’s plans to persist even though the Board of Regents had voted to close it.

“The university has funds in an endowment from the Chinese government that the institute director has indicated could be used to keep the center open for five more years,” Grassley wrote.

Grassley, whose staff has communicated with the UI about the issue, said the institute’s persistence comes despite a warning from FBI Director Christopher Wray last year of “China’s aggressive efforts at U.S. colleges and universities,” with specific reference to activities at Confucius Institutes.

In addition, he wrote, the National Institutes of Health in August sent a letter to institutions using its grants — including the UI — noting “threats posed by foreign entities to the integrity of U.S. biomedical research.”

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In January, according to Grassley, the Health and Human Services Inspector General notified him the NIH made 12 referrals to the inspector general, primarily concerning researchers on NIH grants involving medical studies at U.S. universities. The allegations involve failure to comply with NIH requirements to disclose foreign affiliations.

“This may not seem like an issue Iowans need to care about, but the fact is that foreign agents looking to steal taxpayer-funded research are operating in our own backyard,” he wrote.

l Comments: (319) 339-3158; vanessa.miller@thegazette.com

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