The American public has an interest in knowing the forces that influence and impact the education of our children.

Various groups make large donations to institutions of higher education for reasons of self interest. Funding sources can inhibit the independence and autonomy of academia because donors generally have the ability to determine how benefactors use the money they donate.

When funding comes from foreign entities–individuals, organizations, corporations, royal families or governments–the potential for influence can be even more disturbing.

There is precedent elsewhere in the Western world regarding worrying influence from foreign donations to colleges and universities.

Large foreign donations are influencing courses at British universities, according to an April 2009 report (A Degree of Influence, from the Centre for Social Cohesion). Money from foreign donors comes with strings attached. And dangerously so, according to this research that claims foreign governments have corrupted British universities and threatened their academic impartiality. Robin Simcox, the report’s author, says foreign donors that give enough money get a say in how things are run. “Edinburgh and Cambridge received £8m each from Prince Alwaleed bin Talal of Saudi Arabia last year to set up Islamic studies centres,” he says. “He gets to appoint as many as three or five members of the management committee.”

To regard all or even most foreign donations to America’s colleges or universities as somehow nefarious would obviously be a serious mistake. America’s universities — with their superb curricula and research in science, medicine, agriculture, engineering and other fields — justifiably benefit from the financial support of America’s foreign friends and allies, many of whom have benefited directly from the technical expertise developed in these institutions. On the other hand, there are also reasonable grounds to suspect that some foreign gifts may purchase undue influence over the way in which highly controversial subjects are treated in American university lecture halls and texts.

This has perhaps been most starkly demonstrated at Harvard Law School, which has established a Shariah Law and Shariah Finance section, while also receiving tens of millions of dollars from royalty in Islamic nations, notably Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

When such donations find their way into taxpayer-supported public colleges and universities, the public has a right to know where the foreign donations are coming from and to what purpose they are directed. Elected officials and other policymakers have a duty to see to it that there is full public disclosure on all aspects of such donations.

Sunshine is the best antiseptic. Any foreign donation to a taxpayer-supported public college or university that cannot be disclosed to the public probably should not be accepted in the first place.

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