If foreign governments meddling in our 2016 general election is news to you, then I’m not sure how much fruit could be borne by reading further. It is a well settled fact, acknowledged by every political faction worth mentioning, that Russia (and Israel, Iran, Ukraine, North Korea…) interfered in our most recent presidential election. Some say “meddled,” others, “intervened.”

No matter what word is used after throwing a thesaurus at it, the election was impure in a technical sense.

Maybe you think “fair game” since our government has done the same.

A paper published in 2016 for International Studies Quarterly concluded that of 938 elections held across the globe between 1948 and 2000, the U.S. and Russia intervened in 117 of them, covertly in the main. By the way, our share of the 117? You maybe did not guess it: The American government meddled in 81 of the 117 polluted elections while Russia messed with the other 36. We’re the kettle, the pot, and black in any case.

I anticipate that 2020 will deliver similar results. If you consider election interference from foreign nations to be inappropriate, I’d try to pull you along to the more severe descriptor of illegal. Admittedly, election law hasn’t been and is not an area I’m deeply informed about. But, let’s talk plain speak, folks. It can’t be seen as anything other than wrong. If not, there’d be no reason to try to cover it under covert strategies. However, now knowing that the U.S. is as active in the space as other nation states, perhaps my calling it illegal jumps the gun. So, buckle up and plan to take in the 2020 elections with a chunk of salt. That’s just 335 days out incidentally.

Sadly, these shenanigans don’t start and stop with the election process. What I’ve been learning about recently in the vein of foreign influence in these United States is nearly as sickening, to me. It’s a truly crying shame to learn that foreign influence has crept into the American education system. This, the sacrosanct place of academia, has been fettered by foreign powers and I contend that alongside elections, foreign trade, the rule of law, and every other big picture component of the system that is society, the education environment should operate free from such influence, lest it be invited expressly and legally. You may not be as offended about education interference as you are about election interference. Especially if you’re not an educator nor have kids or other family members in the classroom right now, this may not take you aback. But, it should.

The U.S. government is currently investigating just that thing. How are China, Qatar, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and others, including major companies in those countries, influencing American universities? The stateside institutions at issue here are no slouch in the higher education community. I’m talking about the enormous University of Maryland system, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In late September the U.S. Department of Education sent letters to UM and MIT that they were part of an investigation and thusly needed to supply responses to the Department’s records requests.

Generally, at least in my experience, working with the Department of Education is part and parcel to operating a university in America. There are correspondence flying about pretty regularly. However, some forms are scarier than others, and words like “investigation” and “records requests” surely evoke said fear in administrators’ minds.

Here, specifically, the Department sought records about “gifts and contracts, including restricted and conditional gifts or contracts, from or with a statutorily defined foreign source.” If you are aware of our election issues and all of the impeachment mess then this sounds much like running afoul of the law that requires registering as a foreign agent under the Foreign Agents Registration Act. Think, the FARA allegations or prosecutions of Rudy Giuliani, Michael Flynn, or Michael Cohen.

In the academic space, you may believe that not as much as it stake as it is in an election. Foreign influence isn’t so binary though. Covering improper influence whether in government or education is a bad thing. As a matter of fact, it’s never the right decision to lie to the government or shroud facts indirectly. The government is not investigating randomly, though I’ve found it commonplace to randomly review applications for benefits sought from public coffers. In these cases both institutions’ presidents were advised that they “may not [have] fully capture[d] all gifts, contracts, and/or restricted and conditional gifts or contracts from or with all foreign sources….” This isn’t good.

The fact that the investigation mentions not only Russia, China, and other state actors illegally influencing these hallowed halls, but also that suspicions point to receiving gifts from ill-reputed private firms such as Huawei Technologies and ZTE, two telecom companies sanctioned by the White House, doesn’t bode well either.

How might foreign influence play out in higher education? In elections, it’s not even as clear as “it swings votes.” Nope. There was much more nuance to what the meddling achieved in 2016 than mere vote counts, though that was certainly one result. In education, it’s not simply about granting a degree to an unworthy foreign national, though it may lead to that. More likely, the aim of the influencers is less precise. Research results may be massaged. Publications promoted or quashed. Hiring and immigration decisions certainly are ripe for picking. Maybe, and as an educator this is a real fear, the curricula themselves are at risk of being twisted in favor of those deep political pockets.

Illegal influence of any stripe should be removed from the discussion. Truth, whether in justice, in elections, or in education is what we’re all after. With unreported, possibly illegal money being floated, truth can never be realized, philosophically or actually. You might have learned that in school.

Ed is a professor of cybersecurity, an attorney, and a trained ethicist. Reach him at edzugeresq@gmail.com.

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