China’s Infiltration of America’s Universities

About one week ago, Jorge Salcido was sentenced in federal court in Boston to eight months in prison. This news made headlines even though the individual sentenced was not a celebrity. The mere fact that he was part of the Varsity Blues scandal was enough to warrant national coverage.

While this sentencing is newsworthy, a much bigger story goes largely unreported. The much bigger story is the threat to our national security. China has infiltrated our universities to steal intellectual property and conduct military espionage. Yet most people are unaware of the influence of China on many of America’s college campuses.

William Evanina, Director of the National Counterintelligence and Security Center, said, “We estimate $500 billion a year in economic loss just from the country of China. That’s theft of intellectual property and trade secrets.” China’s undercover work in our universities goes beyond this to include military espionage. China’s interests on American campuses, and elsewhere throughout the world, focus on science, technology, mathematics, medicine and economics.

America’s colleges and universities are widely recognized as among the best in the world. As such, they are where the best minds gather and where cross-pollination of the best ideas result in cutting edge discoveries in the fields most important to our future. This attracts undergraduate and graduate students from around the world. Many professors also come to U.S. colleges and universities to teach and do research. Virtually all of these students and professors are honest and come only to study, to do research, to teach and to learn. But there is a small but significant minority, some U.S. citizens and others from abroad, who have sinister and self-serving motives.

Three cases announced by the Justice Department in January 2020 illustrate this. The three unrelated cases involve two Chinese nationals and an American college professor who were arrested and charged with working on behalf of China.

According to the Justice Department, Yanqing Ye, 29, was working as a student and researcher at Boston University. The Justice Department alleges that on questioning Ye admitted she held the rank of Lieutenant in the Peoples Liberation Army (PLA) and that she was a member of the Chinese Communist Party, which she did not disclose on her student visa application.

The Justice Department statement also alleges that “a search of Ye’s electronic devices demonstrated that at the direction of a PLA Colonel, Ye had accessed U.S. military websites, researched U.S. military projects and compiled information for the PLA on two U.S. scientists with expertise in robotics and computer science.”

Ye was indicted on January 9, 2020 but is now in China.

In a second case the Justice Department alleged that Zaosong Zheng, 31, working on a student visa, conducted cancer-cell research at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston and that on Dec. 9, 2019 he stole 21 vials of biological research and attempted to smuggle them out of the United States aboard a flight to China. According to the Justice Department, Zheng admitted he had stolen the vials from a lab at Beth Israel and that he intended to bring the vials to China to use them to conduct research in his own laboratory and publish the results under his own name.

Zheng is charged with multiple crimes including visa fraud, acting as an unauthorized agent of a foreign government and smuggling goods from the United States.

On January 6, 2021, Zheng was sentenced in U.S. District Court to time served (approximately 87 days), three years of supervised release and ordered removed from the United States.

In a third case, the Justice Department stated that Dr. Charles Lieber was the chair of Harvard’s chemistry and chemical biology department and also served as the Principal Investigator of the Lieber Research Group at Harvard University. The Lieber Research Group, which specialized in nanoscience, has received more than $15,000,000 in grant funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and Department of Defense (DOD). NIH and DOD grants require disclosure of significant foreign financial conflicts of interest, including financial support from foreign governments or foreign entities.

The Justice Department alleges that beginning in 2011, Dr. Lieber became a “Strategic Scientist” at Wuhan University of Technology (WUT) in China and that under the terms of his Thousand Talents contract WUT paid him $50,000 per month, living expenses and gave him more than $1.5 million to establish a research lab at WUT. The Justice Department further alleged that in return, Dr. Lieber was required to work for WUT “not less than nine months a year” by “declaring international cooperation projects, cultivating young teachers and Ph.D. students, organizing international conference[s], applying for patents and publishing articles in the name of” WUT.

The Justice Department made clear that Harvard University was unaware of any engagement by Dr. Lieber in what is alleged against him.

Dr. Lieber was indicted on January 9, 2020. He denies all allegations.

In a press conference following these indictments, U. S. Attorney Andrew Lelling said, “Our community benefits greatly from the diversity and talent of international visitors and our partnerships with foreign institutions. But Chinese economic espionage and theft is a real and daily occurrence that we must begin to confront.”

The news media that feature stories like Varsity Blues don’t cover the China story, but you can. To find out more about China’s undercover work at our colleges and universities, simply Google it. It’s that easy.

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Varsity Blues Update

On April 22, 2019 I posted a piece about a prominent attorney who had confessed to having paid $75,000 to have his daughter’s ACT test “corrected” before submission to the ACT. He had “employed” the services of Rick Singer to have the test score rigged. As you will recall William Rick Singer is the man behind what became the Varsity Blues college admissions scandal.

Having written about the attorney, Gordon Caplan, I feel obligated to provide an update following the decision of New York’s Appellate Division to suspend Mr. Caplan from practicing law for two years. This closes the legal proceedings for the former co-chairman of Willkie Farr & Gallagher, a major international law firm in New York City.

In my prior post, “The Immorality of It All,” I quoted Mr. Caplan’s wiretapped statement to Rick Singer – “I’m not worried about the moral issue here. I’m worried about the – if she’s caught doing that, you know, she’s finished.” In response, I wrote, “As a lawyer, as a certified college admissions advisor, as a former high school English teacher and as a former proctor for the College Board’s SAT examination, my reaction to [what Mr. Caplan had said] was multifaceted disgust.”

Today, I feel much better about Mr. Caplan. And unlike some, I believe the Appellant Division decided correctly.

Following his guilty plea in May, 2019, U.S. District Judge Indira Talwani sentenced him to one month in federal prison, one year of supervised release (parole), 250 hours of community service and ordered him to pay a $50,000 fine. This, together with the loss of his position at his law firm, the personal and public embarrassment he suffered and the legal bills incurred, comprise a very significant consequence for his actions.

Just before his sentencing, Mr. Caplan told Judge Talwani, “I disregarded the values I’ve had throughout my life.” He continued, “I failed. I failed my daughter. I failed my wife. I failed my parents. I failed my colleagues. And I failed the profession that I love.” He added, “This was not a victimless crime. The real victims of this crime were the kids and parents who play by the rules.”

By all accounts, Gordon Caplan was a much better man than the man who employed Rick Singer. And by all accounts, he is chastened and become, again, the better man he was before the Varsity Blues scandal.

Note: Two days ago Netflix released Operation Varsity Blues: The College Admissions Scandal, a documentary about the bribery scandal from 2019.

Lee Bierer, a nationally syndicated columnist and independent college counselor, apparently had access to a preview of the film and wrote in her column,

It’s a powerful film that shows the ugly underbelly of what happened to the college admissions process. It features reporters, independent educational consultants and the sailing coach from Stanford who pleaded guilty. Since William “Rick” Singer, the kingpin coordinator of the bribery scandal, agreed to plead guilty and share information with law enforcement officials, the documentary has the original taped conversations between Singer and his unknowing clients.

In our next post, we will tell of a much more important college admissions scandal – one that threatens our national security.

Your College List – and Phi Beta Kappa

In our last post, we talked about a college rankings list you probably never heard of, the ranking of colleges with the most students selected for an award in the Fulbright U.S. Student Program. We thought colleges with Fulbright awardees indicated those schools had serious academic programs and advisers who helped the students earn their awards.

We also said another program, Phi Beta Kappa (PBK), was a sure indicator of the quality of the colleges’ strength in the liberal arts and sciences. Of the approximately 1,400 four-year colleges and universities U.S. News ranks, just 290 institutions have a Phi Beta Kappa chapter. (The more than 4,000 colleges and universities the U.S. Department of Education lists includes satellite campuses of larger universities, community colleges and for-profit colleges.)

Phi Beta Kappa’s first meeting took place on December 5, 1776 in Williamsburg, Virginia. Five years later, in nearby Yorktown, what became the climactic siege of the American Revolutionary War was imminent.  Afraid for the fledgling organization, one member persuaded fellow members to allow colleges in New England to charter chapters. That preserved Phi Beta Kappa, and chapters were established at Yale in 1780, at Harvard in 1781 and at Dartmouth in 1786.

Of course, most people hearing of Phi Beta Kappa believe it is such an exclusive academic achievement that it is well beyond their realizing and, therefore, of no importance to them. So, what does it matter whether a college you are considering has a Phi Beta Kappa chapter?

What matters is that these colleges and universities are different from all others, and here’s why.

  • Colleges that shelter, i.e. host, a Phi Beta Kappa chapter have applied for selection and submitted to a rigorous, three-year course of examination and re-examination by Phi Beta Kappa to prove the high quality of its liberal arts and sciences course of study and its support of its programs.
  • The steps in the application process consist of a review of the application by the Committee on Qualifications, a visit to the campus, an updated application, recommendations to the PBK Senate, and recommendations by the Senate to the Triennial Counsel. Rejection of the application is possible at each step. Then, at the end of three years, a vote by the Triennial Council approves or disapproves the applications that got that far.
  • So special is earning a Phi Beta Kappa chapter that the president of the University of Houston, Renu Khator, said, “Our earning a Phi Beta Kappa chapter…was the culmination of a tenacious and protracted effort led by a group of staunch faculty members.” He continued, “In many ways, I point to the Phi Beta Kappa chapter as the achievement I’m proudest of so far. . . . Simply put, you [a college] don’t qualify for Phi Beta Kappa unless you have clearly established a culture that supports your students at every turn.”

As a student compiling a college list, realize that many colleges that don’t have well-known “brand names” and that you, your parents and your friends might never have heard of are, in fact, very fine colleges that host Phi Beta Kappa chapters.

For example, what do you know about Muhlenberg College, Saint Joseph’s University, Swarthmore College and Ursinus College, all in Pennsylvania? What do you know of Alfred University, several of the City University of New York colleges, St. Lawrence University, and Union College, all in the state of New York? They all have PBK chapters.

If you’re interested in traveling farther from the New York-Philadelphia area, do you know the College of Wooster in Ohio; Grinnell College in Iowa; Rhodes College in Tennessee; and Wabash College in Indiana? They all have PBK chapters.

We are not suggesting you must consider these colleges. On the contrary, the presence of a Phi Beta Kappa chapter should not be the determining factor in whether you consider a particular college.

However, if someone whose opinion you trust recommends a college, but neither you nor your friends ever heard of it, check to see if it has a Phi Beta Kappa chapter. If not, continue to look further into the recommendation. If yes, you know that that college is one of the special 290, just one of many factors to consider as you make your college list.

Even if you don’t believe you could ever achieve a Phi Beta Kappa key (only 10 percent of graduates do), the presence of a PBK chapter is a sure sign of the college’s high academic quality and its commitment to its students’ success.