While Trump praises Qatar, education officials seek scrutiny

When President Donald Trump welcomed the emir of Qatar to Washington with a lavish Treasury Department dinner, the guest list included the president of Georgetown University, one of six U.S. schools that operate branch campuses in the tiny Persian Gulf nation.

But even as Trump stood before his guests and praised Qatar for its large investments in the United States, his Education Department was quietly investigating Georgetown and three other universities — Texas A&M, Cornell and Rutgers — over their funding from Qatar, the largest foreign donor to U.S. schools.

The department alleges the schools failed to tell federal officials about certain gifts and contracts from foreign sources, as federal law requires, according to letters obtained by The Associated Press.

Investigators are ordering the schools to provide years of information about their foreign revenue, singling out specific nations of interest at each school. Just two countries appear in all four letters: China, whose academic ties have become a source of tension amid its trade war with America, and Qatar, an oil-rich nation that has struggled to shake accusations that it finances terrorism.

Advertisement

The department did not explain its interest in Qatar and declined to comment for this story. But in a July 3 letter to the American Council on Education, which represents dozens of university presidents, the department noted that its broader interest is related to “security, academic freedom and other concerns associated with foreign funding.”

Education officials began their crackdown after a congressional panel in February said the department was failing to oversee foreign funding to U.S. schools. That panel focused solely on China, saying Beijing’s gifts aimed to buy influence in U.S. classrooms. It did not mention Qatar.

Qatar’s funding of U.S. schools never came up in public interactions between Trump and Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani this week. The topic of education arose only once, when the emir said both countries are working to create economies “with an emphasis of education — on education, openness, and opportunity for all.”

Asked for comment about the investigation, Georgetown said it “regularly reports payments from the Qatar Foundation.”

Meghan Dubyak, a Georgetown spokeswoman, said the school’s president, John DeGioia, attended the emir’s dinner “because of Georgetown’s campus in Qatar, which has helped educate more than 400 students in international affairs while maintaining our unwavering commitment to academic freedom, religious freedom, and inclusion and non-discrimination.”

Despite its size, Qatar has funneled more money to U.S. schools than any other nation, according to an AP analysis of federal education data. Over the past decade, it gave more than $1.4 billion to 28 schools, while the No. 2 contributor, England, gave around $900 million.

Nearly 98% of Qatar’s support has gone to just six U.S. schools: Texas A&M, Georgetown, Cornell, Carnegie Mellon, Northwestern and Virginia Commonwealth. Each school has a campus in Qatar, with operating costs covered by the Qatar Foundation, a nonprofit group led by the country’s royal family.

VCU, for example, receives about $40 million a year to run its branch at Education City, a cluster of campuses near the capital city Doha, according to a contract provided by the school.

The American outposts have operated for more than a decade with relatively little controversy. VCU was the first to open a Qatar campus, in 1998, while Northwestern was the latest, in 2008. Each branch focuses on a different academic area, from engineering to fine arts. They aim to teach students from Qatar and the Middle East. The American Association of University Professors says it has fielded no complaints about funding from Qatar, as it sometimes does over China’s support.

John Carberry, a spokesman for Cornell, said the school’s branch has trained hundreds of physicians from the Middle East and Asia, “enabling the ongoing transformation of patient care, biomedical research and quality of life in the region and around the world.” He said Cornell is cooperating with investigators and has consistently disclosed its funding in public tax filings.

A statement from Rutgers said the school’s “failure to report was a misunderstanding on the part of the university” and that officials are working to come into compliance. A spokeswoman would not elaborate.

The Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Washington think tank, called Tuesday for Trump to make the emir “come clean” about Qatar’s gifts to U.S. schools. The group said the Qatar Foundation is “renowned for hosting virulently extremist preachers at its flashy mosque in Qatar’s Education City, located near the satellite campuses of American universities.”

“President Trump should tell the emir that America welcomes genuine investments in our education system, but not influence peddling,” the group wrote.

A message seeking comment was left with the Qatar Foundation.

Two other groups, the Zachor Legal Institute and Judicial Watch, have pushed Texas A&M to divulge more details about its funding from Qatar. The groups have suggested that the Qatar Foundation promotes extremist and anti-Israel ideas on U.S. campuses.

Last year, lawyers for the Qatar Foundation filed a lawsuit in Texas seeking to block Texas A&M from releasing records about the country’s donations, arguing that they amount to “trade secrets” and could give competitors an unfair advantage. The Zachor Legal Institute is opposing the request, which is pending in court.

Trump was initially a critic of Qatar and in 2017 called it a “funder of terrorism at a very high level,” but he appears to have warmed to the country. On Monday, he called it a “great ally” and said its emir is a “great friend.”

Trump also praised Qatar for spending $8 billion to improve U.S. military bases in the nation. During a visit from the emir last year, Trump applauded Qatar for making strides to fight terrorism.

But Saudi Arabia and other neighbors have continued a blockade of Qatar that was imposed in 2017 over a range of concerns, including Qatar’s ties to Iran and allegations that it has backed terrorist organizations such as al-Qaida and the Islamic State group. Qatar denies the accusations, and on Monday the emir reiterated his commitment to oppose terrorism.

___

Follow Collin Binkley on Twitter at https://twitter.com/cbinkley

Copyright © 2019 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This website is not intended for users located within the European Economic Area.