America’s colleges and universities are aggressively addressing foreign threats

Over the past year, the United States has heard a constant drumbeat of concerns from the intelligence community, science agencies, the White House and members of Congress about the security of research and technology on America’s college and university campuses. These concerns relate to potential nefarious acts by foreign parties, including the theft of intellectual property; talent-recruitment programs aimed at securing U.S. research and technology;  breaches in the grant review processes of major federal science agencies whereby proposals under review are inappropriately shared with foreign scientists; targeted cyberattacks; and other forms of foreign interference in research conducted throughout academia.

These are entirely legitimate concerns. However, the current drumbeat has fed the false impression that bad actors are everywhere on our campuses and that they are successfully exploiting our longstanding commitment to the ideals of openness, academic freedom, collaboration and international engagement. Moreover, this erroneous narrative holds that colleges and universities have failed to take these concerns seriously.

This is far from the truth.

Colleges and universities like ours have been deeply engaged in efforts to protect our campus communities from these threats. In fact, universities are aggressively addressing threats of foreign interference, and we are sharing best practices and programs with our peer campuses.

Recently, two of our nation’s largest university organizations, the Association of American Universities and the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, conducted a wide-ranging survey to identify examples of effective policies, practices, tools and resources universities are using to ensure the security of their research enterprises and address foreign security threats.

As a result of that survey, the AAU – which includes 60 of the nation’s leading research universities – recommended that its members implement a number of these best practices. Collectively, these measures aim to build awareness among scholars and researchers of foreign threats and reporting requirements; improve coordination among staff who have responsibility for issues in these areas; ensure careful review of foreign grants, contracts, collaborations and affiliations; and strengthen cybersecurity across all relevant aspects of their universities.

More specifically, the AAU has strongly encouraged its members to conduct an inventory of campus activities involving security matters; to establish regular communication with faculty members about potential security threats; to underscore for faculty how systematic programs of foreign influence can jeopardize core scientific and academic values of our institutions and the integrity of our research; and to ensure that faculty, staff and students are monitoring and meeting all existing federal disclosure and export controls compliance requirements.

Even if they are aware of the measures we are taking, some in our country will continue to criticize all foreign affiliations with campuses conducting scientific research and question why we should continue to recruit international students at all if there is even the slightest risk they could be bad actors. And some will seek to outright deny entry to our campuses to any individual who might be connected with certain foreign governments or who works in a field of research they view as sensitive.

Heeding those voices would be a significant strategic mistake for U.S. policymakers. Closing our campuses to foreign visitors, ignoring the major contributions our international students and scholars make to the advancement of American science and abandoning the very openness that has been a central ingredient to the success of American innovation would ultimately do more harm to the U.S. research enterprise than good. It would also send a horrible signal to the rest of the world.

The “Securing American Science and Technology Act,” introduced in May by Rep. Mikie Sherrill (D-N.J.) and Rep. Anthony Gonzalez (R-Ohio), takes a far better approach. This legislation, now part of a larger bill, establishes an interagency working group through the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy’s National Science and Technology Council. The group would coordinate activities across disparate federal agencies to ensure that existing security controls such as classification are properly employed to protect national security while not limiting the free flow of fundamental scientific information. The bill would also create a new roundtable within the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine to facilitate ongoing dialogue between academic, scientific and federal actors on how to best strike the balance between science and security. 

We should also be cautious about relying too much on colleges and universities to mitigate the risk of foreign interference—a task in tension with the very nature of intellectual and scientific inquiry. Our federal security and intelligence agencies, which have the central responsibility for national security in this regard, continue to refine and streamline their processes for screening foreign visitors, controlling exports and detecting potential security issues. With their extensive expertise, resources and active engagement in addressing potential threats, they are far better positioned to secure our nation and our intellectual property than institutions of higher learning are.

Nonetheless, schools like ours continue to confront new and unforeseen risks, and we must aspire to a unified approach that includes a sharing of expertise, experience and resources while continuing to collaborate with our partners in law enforcement. Colleges and universities should continue to play their part by strengthening their protocols. Federal policymakers should base any new laws or rules on what is actually happening on our college campuses rather than on a narrative that is not based in reality.

Michael A. McRobbie is president of Indiana University and acting chair of the Association of American Universities board of directors. Morton Schapiro is president of Northwestern University.

Tags Anthony Gonzalez Education Indiana University Mikie Sherrill Northwestern University Securing American Science and Technology Act Student exchange Students

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