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Credit: Alana Kelly

Last year, The Daily Pennsylvanian reported that Penn received nearly $258 million from foreign organizations between 2013 to mid-2019. Later that year, members of the House Judiciary Committee sent a letter to Amy Gutmann, alleging that “since 2015, the University of Pennsylvania has declared 92 gifts or contracts totaling $62,204,380 from China, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Russia — all of which, 28 totaling $27,104,975 [about 44%] were anonymous.”

Foreign government spending to American universities, particularly from China, have been described as a “black hole” due to the lack of transparency and disclosure involved. The acceptance of donations from authoritarian and undemocratic governments sharply contrasts with Penn’s motto, "leges sine moribus vanae" — or “laws without morals are useless.” This presents massive concerns and hypocrisy for which we, as a student body, must hold Penn accountable.

Our university is accepting funds from a government that actively suppresses democracy, forces ethnic minorities into detention camps to "re-educate them," and downplays and censors news about the coronavirus pandemic. Mind you, this is only from China — investigations reveal that Penn also has accepted donations from the ministry of defense of Saudi Arabia, a government that orchestrated and subsequently denied the assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Governments like China’s are passing legislation without accounting for ethics or morals. Putting Uighurs Muslims in detention camps, for example, attacks the fundamental human right to freely practice religion and goes in conflict with Penn's founding as a non-sectarian institute of higher education, which done to ensure people of all faiths or no faith had an opportunity to pursue academic study. If Penn wants to stand by its founding principles, then it must work with and ally itself with organizations that follow them as well.

In addition to Penn’s hypocrisy, congressional investigations have found that foreign governments typically donate to universities like Penn with ulterior motives. Countries like China target the higher education sector as a means to infiltrate American research projects and influence curricula. Senate investigations reveal that Chinese funding typically “comes with strings that can compromise academic freedom.”

This should be incredibly concerning. Donations that harm academic freedom also undermine Penn's quality of education and research, which is directly detrimental to us as students. As Robert Daly, director of the Kissinger Institute on China and the United States, stated in an interview with the Council on Foreign Relations, “universities have become a vector for the loss of strategically significant information to China ... through normal teaching and research activities. This is the broad and potentially, if not framed properly, extremely dangerous accusation or realization.”

At the very least, Penn must disclose all sources of funding from foreign organizations promptly to create a more transparent and open atmosphere that ensures that donations to Penn do not come with strings attached. Last year, the Department of Education launched a reporting portal to allow U.S. universities to more easily disclose foreign funding. Penn has begun to use the portal, but must do so for all foreign donations.

In addition, Penn must be held accountable to explain why they are receiving donations from foreign governments. It could be the case that these donations from Saudi Arabia, China, and others have perfectly reasonable explanations — not all foreign funding is bad and can often provide much needed resources for important research projects. However, we don’t know that for certain, and that’s a big part of the problem.

Failure to explain in detail where these donations are coming from and why they are being received necessitates an immediate reexamination of Penn’s relationship with authoritarian and undemocratic governments. Penn cannot only state that “laws without morals are useless” — their actions must exemplify this as well. 

DANIEL GUREVITCH is a College first year from Wynnewood, Pa. studying political science and philosophy. His email is dgure@sas.upenn.edu.

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