Top U.S. universities are shunning research money from Huawei Technologies Co. amid pressure from Congress and the Trump administration to limit dealings with the Chinese telecommunications-equipment maker over national security concerns.
Princeton University, Stanford University, Ohio State University and the University of California at Berkeley all say they are cutting or reducing ties to Huawei. The company gave $10.6 million in gifts and contracts to nine U.S. schools for technology and communications programs from 2012 to 2018, according to the Education Department.
“More and more of our universities have cut their ties,” said Tobin Smith, vice president at the Association of American Universities that represents 62 research institutions. In September, the FBI held “a major summit” with university presidents in Washington, Smith said.
The university retreats show how pressure surrounding Huawei is quietly affecting research institutions, even as U.S. authorities mount an aggressive public campaign for companies and European allies to avoid doing business with the company. Federal prosecutors indicted the company in January on charges of trade-secret theft, and its chief financial officer was arrested in Canada on U.S. accusations of busting sanctions placed on Iran.
U.S. colleges and universities operate under an ethos of open, worldwide intellectual exchange. They strive to protect academic freedom from government, political and corporate influence and try to resist pressure to rupture research funding and relationships. But in Huawei’s case, some universities have submitted — albeit reluctantly.
“Huawei has been a good partner. But we take very seriously the federal indictments about the company’s business practices,” Berkeley Vice Chancellor for Research Randy Katz said in an interview.
“It really is a disservice to the technology companies in the United States and Europe, and to the researchers at universities that are in the forefront of new scientific and technical developments in this field, to be locked out of the ability to interact with companies like Huawei,” Katz said. “We’re cutting ourselves off from the opportunity to learn.”
U.S. officials say Huawei may pose a threat of espionage, in part because it must under Chinese law respond to Beijing’s security agencies. The Shenzhen-based company rejects such assertions, saying no evidence has been presented of any misdeeds. Accusations against the company may be political in nature, a lawyer for Huawei’s chief financial officer, who is fighting extradition from Vancouver to the U.S., told a Canadian court March 6.
President Donald Trump’s administration has devoted high-level attention to Huawei’s role at universities. The Federal Bureau of Investigation and intelligence agencies briefed Education Department staff on July 18 in the White House Situation Room, according to a Nov. 9 letter to lawmakers from Diane Auer Jones, Education’s principal deputy under secretary.
Education Department spokesman Jim Bradshaw declined to comment.
The FBI “has met with officials from academia as part of our ongoing engagement on national security matters,” according to statement from the agency.
“They’re very careful not to say you should or shouldn’t deal with this company,” Smith, with the Association of American Universities, said. “But they help you to assess the risk.”
Members of Congress are also taking an interest. Representative Jim Banks, an Indiana Republican, on Tuesday announced legislation to have intelligence agencies monitor sensitive university research by Huawei, ZTE as well as Confucius Institutes — Chinese-funded groups that promote language and culture on about 100 U.S. campuses.
“Huawei, ZTE and Confucius Institutes are snakes in the grass,” Banks said. “More and more of our colleagues are committed to cutting the heads off those snakes and preventing them from infiltrating our academic institutions, our telecom infrastructure, because of the serious nature of these threats.”
Huawei invites research scholars to participate in its Huawei Innovation Research Program, which provides funding ranging from $30,000 to $70,000 for work in communication technology, computer science, engineering, and related fields. The program has over 1,000 collaboration partners, including the University of Cambridge, the National University of Singapore and the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, according to its web page.
Chase Skinner, a spokesman for Huawei, didn’t respond to repeated inquiries by email and telephone over several days.
Princeton took in two gifts from Huawei in 2017 totaling $274,990, according to the Education Department. The funds went to support two computer-science research projects, said Michael Hotchkiss, a spokesman for the school in Princeton, New Jersey.
“We decided in July 2018 not to accept any new gifts from the company,” Hotchkiss said in an email. “In January 2019, we let Huawei know we would not accept the third and final $150,000 installment of a gift in support of computer-science research, which was our only active Huawei-supported project. There are no Huawei-funded projects at the university now.”
Stanford “has established a moratorium on new engagements, gifts, affiliate membership fees, and other support from Huawei,” E.J. Miranda, a spokesman, said in an email. “We have undertaken this pause out of an abundance of caution and are aware of nothing inappropriate arising from past support that Huawei has provided to Stanford.”
Ohio to Oxford
Ohio State received $1.2 million from Huawei, according to the Education Department.
“These gifts and contracts funded basic research in computer science engineering and electrical and computer engineering,” Ben Johnson, an Ohio State spokesman, said in an email. “We are in the process of closing out the final contract, and are not accepting or pursuing any other gifts or contracts from Huawei.”
U.S. universities aren’t alone in rethinking Huawei connections. Oxford University in England decided in January not to pursue new funding from Huawei, Stephen Rouse, head of university communications, said in an email. Two existing research projects with a combined funding from Huawei of about $900,000 will continue, Rouse said.
Huawei funds are but a fraction of overall foreign giving to U.S. colleges and universities, which totaled $9.2 billion over the past six years, the Education Department found.
The Education Department’s list doesn’t capture all Huawei funding of higher education. For instance, Berkeley says it had $7.8 million in multi-year commitments with Huawei in the middle of 2018, compared with a total of $1.4 million in gifts that the Education Department counts.
‘Severity of Accusations’
At Berkeley, Katz, the vice chancellor, in a Jan. 30 letter told colleagues the school “will not enter into or discuss new research collaborations” while charges against Huawei are before the courts. “The severity of these accusations raises questions and concerns that only our judicial system can address,” Katz said in the letter.
Berkeley will honor existing agreements, none of which involve sensitive technological secrets, Katz said in the letter.
The fate of Huawei-funded research has spurred debate among U.S. educators.
“We always talk about finding the right balance between science and security,” Smith said. “In light of the current climate, I think we all need to assess what that balance is.”