The University of Texas has decided to forgo money for its new China Policy Center from a foundation with ties to the branch of the Chinese Communist Party that manages influence operations abroad.
The decision by UT President Gregory L. Fenves followed an internal university review and a plea from Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, who warned that accepting money from the China-United States Exchange Foundation, or CUSEF, could facilitate China’s propaganda efforts and impair the university’s credibility.
The developments were first reported in an opinion article in The Washington Post.
The China Policy Center, part of UT’s LBJ School of Public Affairs, opened in August, and Fenves’ decision to reject funding from the foundation is something of a rebuke to the center’s executive director, David Firestein, and LBJ Dean Angela Evans.
Firestein, a former U.S. diplomat, did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment, and Evans referred questions to UT spokesman Gary Susswein, who provided a copy of a letter Fenves sent to Cruz on Friday.
In the letter, Fenves said he began reviewing concerns after the center and the LBJ School approached him about potential funds from the foundation. Several university professors and leaders raised concerns about ties among the Hong Kong-based foundation, foundation leader Tung Chee Hwa and the Communist Party.
The UT president told Cruz that he spoke not only with faculty experts on U.S.-China relations but also with U.S. intelligence officials. Those officials included some at the CIA and the FBI.
Fenves said he had already decided that UT would not accept “programmatic funding” from the foundation and was now also ruling out “any funds for travel, student exchanges or other initiatives from the organization.”
“External support is vital to the work of faculty members and researchers, furthers our mission as a flagship university and underwrites studies that can advance our knowledge and understanding of the world,” Fenves wrote. “We must, however, also ensure that the receipt of outside funding does not create potential conflicts of interest or place limits on academic freedom and the robust exchange of ideas. I am concerned about this if we were to accept funding from CUSEF.”
The China-United States Exchange Foundation did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment.
Peter Mattis, a fellow in the China program at the Washington-based Jamestown Foundation, told the Post that “this is one of the first examples of a university turning down money because it is tied to the Chinese Communist Party’s united front activities,” adding that other institutions ought to follow UT’s deliberative process.
Fenves said the university would seek other domestic and international sources of support for the China center.
“The China Policy Center is up and running and has the backing of the university,” Susswein told the Statesman. “Broadly, this is something we’re heavily committed to and invested in.”
When UT announced the creation of the center last year, it said the center’s charge is “to make fresh and enduring contributions to the study of China-related policy topics while advancing U.S.-China relations and Texas-China relations. The center will seek to develop solutions to contemporary policy challenges through a robust program of ‘track 2 diplomacy,’ through which open, citizen-to-citizen diplomacy is used to help governments reach workable policy solutions.”