I just received the letter at bottom in a mass e-mailing to Indiana University faculty. It instructs faculty about the importance of complying with all laws and regulations regarding the disclosure of “foreign influences.”

The sender, a high official of the University, is also a smart colleague who I respect. And I am certain that universities such as Indiana University, which are large corporate entities, are required to sometimes share information in legalistic ways.

At the same time, I find this message deeply troubling.

First, while it begins with boilerplate support for openness and academic freedom, these are cursory references, and these values play no real role in this message. The notion that the university has an important public and civic role in the world is completely absent. The notion that it has obligations to colleagues elsewhere in the world is similarly absent.

Second, the letter is framed, rather simply, as a set of university directives designed to convey the directives of an agency of the U.S. government. The notion that the university is a space of inquiry and teaching independent of the state, and does not simply administer state imperatives, is completely absent. The notion that the faculty and staff (and also students) of the university are participants in an ongoing discussion about the rules and priorities of the university is similarly absent.

Third, and most important, the letter simply takes for granted the meaning of its key term: “foreign.”

What is “foreign” in today’s thoroughly global and globalized world? Who defines what is “foreign?” In the same way, what is the antonym of “foreign” that is implied by this letter? Are the faculty of Indiana University presumed to be somehow “native” and not “foreign?” (Are they perhaps presumed to be “Hoosiers?” Will injunctions to cheer for IU’s “Hoosier” sports teams come next? Can mandates to wear “Cream and Crimson” be far behind?). I understand that Indiana University is a public institution constrained by law, and that for certain legal purposes there might be a distinction between “U.S nationals” and “foreign” individuals, groups, and states. And I understand that the university must comply with certain federal mandates.

But one might hope that at this moment of stupid and dangerous appeals to “America First” — combined with efforts to police the border and limit entry to so many people, including refugees, migrants, and colleagues — the university would stand for something broader and better. And that whatever legal “warnings” might be considered administratively necessary would be couched in terms of full-throated support for the free movement of people and ideas in a truly global “republic of letters.” And that any such statement would center on the idea that “foreign influences” — new and foreign ideas and perspectives, which know no national boundaries — are the heart of academic life, and not something to be feared or monitored or reported on to the appropriate authorities. To be clear: there can be no doubt that with regard to cyber-security, and a few other things, it might be important to be especially careful about the possible interference of non-academic actors — agencies of other governments, or agencies of the U.S. government for that matter — in academic affairs. But calling attention to such things is very different than publishing a legalistic letter that speaks in general about “foreign influence,” that simply assumes that the appropriate response to concerning situations is to report them to the authorities, and that frames the entire matter as a question of compliance and liability.)

All the same, we all know better. The contemporary research university does not stand for something broader and better or, if it does, it is only the slightest bit broader and better. And this letter epitomizes what the university has become and what it must and will continue to be: a bureaucratic-corporate entity run like a large corporation in league with the state and in fear of being too politically “out of step.”

There are of course exceptions. The New School for Social Research, which curates Public Seminar, was founded as such an exception, as a refuge for intellectuals in exile and as a space of solidarity for those suffering persecution; and Public Seminar continues in that tradition, promoting ongoing conversation about the role of the New School, and universities more generally, as sanctuaries. In Europe, Central European University is another such exception. Readers of this column will be well aware that the right-wing nationalist/populist government of Viktor Orban has recently harassed and then expelled CEU from Hungary, forcing it to relocate to Vienna. The rationale: CEU was a foreign, New York-accredited institution, alien to the “native soil” of Hungary and the source of many “dangerous” and “foreign” influences, including gender studies and liberalism itself.

I was very proud to join with my colleagues at Indiana University’s Russian and Eastern European Institute in sending a letter of support to our colleagues and friends at CEU. At Indiana University, like at most universities, there are spaces of real intellectual inquiry and collegiality, sustained by faculty and staff who are committed to academic values.

We know that at a time of rising nationalism and demands to close borders and build walls, it is important for universities to be spaces of freedom and hospitality where “foreign influence on research and scholarship” is welcomed, and scholars and students from all over the world and especially its most oppressive places are welcomed too.

Here is the text:

Important message regarding foreign influence on research and scholarship

Dear Colleagues:

Indiana University is deeply committed to international research collaborations, to international faculty and student exchanges, to providing a welcoming environment to foreign students and scholars at our campuses, and to academic freedom. These international priorities and perspectives help propel IU’s excellence in cutting-edge research and creative activity.

As you may know, the director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), Francis Collins, M.D., Ph.D., has issued a “Foreign Influence Letter to Grantees.” Dr. Collins also testified in front of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee outlining concerns about foreign influence in U.S. research. He offered a reminder to “ disclose all forms of other support and financial interests, including support coming from foreign governments or other foreign entities…in accordance with the NIH Grants Policy Statement, [on] all applications and progress reports .”

While public discourse on the role of foreign influence in US universities continues, I would like to highlight IU’s policies and procedures designed to ensure compliance with export control laws, reporting requirements concerning foreign research support and partnerships, and rules requiring disclosure of personal financial interests associated with foreign governments and other external entities.

The following is a list of requirements that apply if you are engaging in international research or educational activities :

  • For all proposals submitted through the Office of Research Administration (including just-in-time procedures) that require disclosure of current and pending research support, you must disclose all sources of research support — ongoing and proposed — including any foreign sources of funding whether provided to you directly or through an organization (including IU).
  • You must disclose your outside professional activities and financial relationships, whether compensated or uncompensated, through the Conflict of Interest/Commitment form. Such disclosures must include all work for, or financial interests received from, a foreign institution of higher education or the government or a quasi-governmental organization of another country.
  • Journals and professional organizations have various, often broader, standards for financial interest disclosure than the university. Review those standards for each relevant journal or organization and disclose appropriately.
  • Ensure compliance with U.S. export control regulations when doing any of the following: accepting publication restrictions on research; traveling internationally and attending conferences; participating in international collaborations; working with international staff and students; hosting international visitors; shipping materials internationally; and engaging in other international transactions. Learn more about export control at IU and, if needed, contact IU’s Export Control Office within the Office of Research Compliance.
  • Pay special attention to any travel or research collaborations involving sanctioned or embargoed countries, including: the Western Balkans, Belarus, Burundi, Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Crimea Region of the Ukraine, Cuba, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, North Korea, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, Syria, Venezuela, Yemen, and Zimbabwe. Travel to, or activities involving, these countries may require explicit government approval. Learn more.
  • Follow the U.S. State Department and IU’s guidelines regarding travel to high-risk countries.
  • Programs, travel, or other activities involving IU graduate, undergraduate, or pre-college students must be approved in advance by the university-wide Overseas Study Advisory Council.
  • Coordinate with the Offices of Research Compliance and Research Administration regarding any prospective sponsored research agreement or gift. Although this is true generally, it is especially important if the agreement or gift involves a foreign entity or person.
  • Remember that individual researchers may not make any arrangements or commitments with a prospective partner or funding source that would contractually bind the university without going through the appropriate university offices and administrative procedures. Learn more.
  • Promptly disclose intellectual property to the Innovation and Commercialization Office and remind your group members to do the same.
  • Comply with the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, which, among other things, limits gifts and payments to foreign government officials.

We are working closely with professional academic organizations and government officials to ensure that the value of international engagement for the university, the state, and the nation is well understood. At the same time, we will continue to comply fully with relevant federal and state laws and granting agency requirements. The risk of noncompliance is not just to the university but also to individual researchers, who face serious financial and criminal penalties for even unintentional violations of these legal requirements.

I appreciate your attention to these important matters. If you have any questions please feel free to contact me or my colleagues Eric Swank, Executive Director, Research Compliance, or Steve Martin, Associate Vice President, Research Administration.

Fred H. Cate
Vice President for Research
Distinguished Professor and C. Ben Dutton Professor of Law


Jeffrey C. Isaac is James H. Rudy Professor of Political Science at Indiana University, Bloomington. A Senior Editor at, and regular contributor to, Public Seminar. His new book, #AgainstTrump: Notes from Year One, is published by Public Seminar Books/OR Books. You can purchase it here. Follow Jeff on Facebook.