“We are reviewing the request and preparing to respond to it,” she said in a written statement.
The letter to Harvard appears to have been prompted in part by an investigation into Charles M. Lieber, the chairman of the university’s chemistry department, who was charged with lying to federal officials about grants he had received from China. The Education Department request asks for all records regarding Dr. Lieber’s Chinese benefactors, the Thousand Talents recruitment program and the Wuhan University of Technology.
Dr. Lieber was arrested on Jan. 28 and released early this month on $1 million bond.
But the inquiry is also part of a broad crackdown that began last summer and was designed to force more scrutiny on funding for U.S. higher education institutions from countries that are often at odds with American policies but eager to tap the country’s brightest minds.
The Education Department said Wednesday that since July, its enforcement efforts have prompted the reporting of about $6.5 billion in undisclosed foreign gifts, grants and contracts. Ten schools — Boston University, Carnegie Mellon, the University of Chicago, the University of Colorado at Boulder, Cornell, M.I.T., the University of Pennsylvania, Texas A&M, the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center and Yale — declared approximately $3.6 billion in previously unreported foreign gifts.
The department announced in June that it was investigating whether Cornell, Georgetown, Rutgers and Texas A&M were fully complying with a federal law that required colleges to report all gifts and contracts from foreign sources that exceeded $250,000. In letters sent to the universities in July, department officials wrote that they were seeking records dating as far back as nine years, outlining agreements, communication and financial transactions with entities and governments in countries such as China, Qatar, Russia and Saudi Arabia.
The federal government demanded thousands of records that could reveal millions of dollars in foreign aid for campus operations overseas, academic research and other cultural and academic partnerships.
The investigations have caused friction between the Education Department and several higher education groups, which have urged the department to clarify the rules around an obscure provision, called Section 117, in the Higher Education Act. The provision requires colleges to report all gifts and contracts from foreign sources that exceed $250,000.
Education Department officials revealed last February in congressional testimony that fewer than 3 percent of 3,700 higher education institutions that receive foreign funding reported receiving foreign gifts or contracts exceeding $250,000.