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US investigating universities, including MIT, over Russian, Chinese donations

MIT Main Campus (DrKenneth/WikiCommons)

This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.

U.S. officials have asked the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to turn over documents regarding the university’s contacts with foreign governments and donations from foreign sources, including those coming from Russia, China, and Saudi Arabia.

The Massachusetts university was asked specifically by the U.S. Department of Education for documentation related to contacts with the Moscow-based software firm Kaspersky Lab and the Skolkovo Foundation, a Moscow-area project that MIT had a multimillion-dollar contract with.

The University of Maryland received a similar demand from the Education Department, in letters dated September 26, and published on November 21 in the U.S. government’s official repository.

“The ministry is concerned that in your reports all receipts and contracts of foreign origin might not be fully covered,” the letter said.

A MIT spokeswoman told RFE/RL that the university was “committed” to cooperating with the U.S. government to clarify the issue.

“MIT takes its federal reporting obligations seriously. About a year ago, MIT identified ways to improve its foreign gift and contract reporting. MIT’s reporting since January 2019 has been based on these improved processes. The Institute is committed to working constructively with federal officials to address the department’s questions,” the spokeswoman said in an emailed response.

Officials from the University of Maryland could not be immediately reached for comment.

It wasn’t immediately clear what prompted the inquiry by the Education Department.

For MIT, the demand is another headache stemming from the Cambridge-based university’s longtime partnerships with Russia, and in particular with a Russian billionaire who has had close ties with the government.

During Dmitry Medvedev’s tenure as Russia’s president in 2008-12, he championed an effort to encourage science and technology and entrepreneurship in Russia.

Calling for the creation of a Russian “Silicon Valley,” Medvedev’s government partnered with wealthy Russians to build a community on Moscow’s outskirts where scientists and researchers would work in a state-of-the-art, high-tech business and innovation park.

At the forefront of the project, known as Skolkovo, was Viktor Vekselberg, a Russian tycoon who had who made billions of dollars in Russia’s metals industry.

In 2011, Skolkovo announced that MIT would help set up a research and entrepreneurship university that mirrored the U.S. university, which is considered one of the world’s leading science and research institutions.

MIT was paid $300 million for its participation in the project, which resulted in the Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology.

Vekselberg was elected to the university’s board of trustees in 2013.

In the United States, there were doubts about Skolkovo’s real intentions. In an unusual opinion piece published in 2014, the FBI warned about foreign governments using private companies to acquire critical technologies. The FBI singled out Skolkovo.

“It is the intent of the FBI for the recipients of the bulletin about Skolkovo to use the information to inform their decision-making process when selecting foreign investors to protect their interests which results in safeguarding our nation’s interests,” the article said.

In 2015, Vekselberg was reelected as a trustee to MIT’s board, a gesture that came one year after Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea Peninsula and amid worsening relations between Moscow and Washington.

In April 2018, Vekselberg was quietly removed as a trustee, following the U.S. Treasury Department’s decision to list him and his business group among the Russian officials, “oligarchs,” and companies to be penalized for advancing Moscow’s “malign activities.”

The Education Department letters to MIT and the University of Maryland specifically request documentation also related to several Chinese and Saudi company sources, as well as from the Chinese and Saudi governments.

Earlier this year, the Project on Government Oversight, a Washington, D.C.-based watchdog organization, published a report documenting hundreds of millions of dollars in donations from Saudi sources to U.S. universities.

MIT, the report found, received nearly $78 million between 2011 and 2017 from Saudi sources. However, the bulk of those funds came from a Saudi businessman and graduate of MIT, Muhammad Abdul Latif Jameel. The remainder came from the Saudi government-owned oil company, Aramco.

The Saudi government donations came under harsh scrutiny following the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who was killed at a Saudi Consulate in Turkey in October 2018. The CIA has told U.S. lawmakers that the killing was ordered by Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman.