August 29, 2019

EDITORIAL: Cornell Is Under Federal Investigation. It’s Been Here Before.

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While summer pursuits were occupying many a Cornellian, a jarring story dropped back here on the Hill. In a July 3 letter to President Martha Pollack, the Department of Education suggested Cornell may have violated the Higher Education Act of 1965. The University’s alleged misdeed? A failure to duly disclose financial relationships with China and Qatar.

Last March, after The Sun uncovered lucrative research arrangements between Cornell and the Chinese telecom firm Huawei, the University assured us there was nothing to worry about. Ostensibly, it had “carefully reviewed the projects in question … to comply with all federal and state laws and regulations.” In the wake of a federal investigation, that claim now seems, at best, dubious.

And while the Department of Education getting involved is deeply unsettling, it’s just the latest black mark against the University on its foreign ties. On Qatar — as far back as former President Elizabeth Garrett’s time at the helm — the Cornell community had repeatedly urged the administration to investigate alleged labor abuses at the University’s campus in Doha, with a commitment to full disclosure. Such an investigation would’ve cleared the air well before the feds began poking around. Ditto on China, where a public accounting of Cornell’s connections to Chinese benefactors would’ve likely preempted any top-down scrutiny.

But this isn’t the first time Cornell has faced federal scrutiny for alleged wrongdoing. It isn’t even the first time in 2019.

In February, we learned the Department of Education had given the University a wrist-slapping for mismanaging federal financial aid funds, though this has not been previously reported. The Department downgraded Cornell’s participation status in federal aid programs, forcing the University to seek government approval for any new academic programs or “other substantial changes.”

Surprisingly, Cornell’s response to this federal aid issue has been promising. John Carberry, a top University spokesman, told us Cornell is overhauling its internal systems, as well as hiring some fresh faces, to help ensure it complies with the law. Carberry is “confident” the administrative hiccups that occurred “are being tackled appropriately.” We won’t know whether this approach will bear fruit until 2021 — when Cornell can re-apply for normal participation in federal aid programs — but it seems reasonable.

Clearly, Cornell is capable of proactively responding to federal scrutiny when it so chooses. The question now is whether the University, staring down a potentially damning federal probe, will decide to proactively disclose its foreign ties — or whether it will abdicate responsibility once more.

We hope it chooses the former, of course. And a great place to start, as we’ve suggested before, would be launching an independent investigation into Cornell’s Qatar campus and fully disclosing the University’s Huawei connections. It’s not too much to ask, much less from an administration whose credibility is at stake.

The above editorial reflects the opinions of The Cornell Daily Sun. Editorials are penned collaboratively between the Editor-in-Chief, Associate Editor and Opinion Editor, in consultation with additional Sun editors and staffers. The Sun’s editorials are independent of its news coverage and op-eds.