Yale Daily News

The University recently lobbied against legislation that would make more stringent rules for reporting foreign funding and in support of legislation that would give a safe harbor from liability if someone should contract coronavirus when the University reopened.

Yale’s most recent lobbying disclosures show that the University took stances on many bills that could potentially affect its operations and financial status and spent a total of $110,000 on lobbying efforts between July and September. Along with addressing issues of foreign funding and COVID-19 liability, the University lobbied for numerous bills that would help international students get visas, supported the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program and advocated for more funding for federal science agencies.

Yale has previously come under fire from the U.S. Department of Education for failing to report $375 million in foreign gifts and contracts over a period of four years. Last February, the DOE opened an investigation into Yale and Harvard University’s financial disclosures. In June, Republican Rep. Kevin Hern of Oklahoma introduced the America: FIRST Act, which would lower the financial threshold for reporting foreign funding and require individual departments within Yale to report such gifts and contracts. Yale opposed the legislation, Associate Vice President for Federal and State Relations Richard Jacob told the News. 

“Yale believes the additional reporting would impose considerable administrative burden without providing additional useful information,” Jacob wrote in an email to the News.

The bill would require institutions of higher education to disclose the value of foreign gifts in the byline of every professorial publication. Additionally, it would mandate that departments within Yale — rather than just the University as a whole — disclose foreign gifts.

The DOE and Republican representatives have continually criticized the University for its failure to report the foreign funding. But Vice President for Global Strategy Pericles Lewis explained that the DOE has a complicated procedure for reporting foreign gifts. Through an oversight, Yale failed to report some gifts, he said, but once the University became aware of the oversight, it went back and completed all the required filings. Lapses in reporting are fairly common, Lewis added.

“I think we’ve been totally upfront and open with the government about where all foreign funds have come from,” Lewis said. “That’s quite a complicated matter, because you can imagine we have a lot of foreign activity, but we’ve declared it all and we’re up to date.”

Along with the bill related to reporting gifts, Yale lobbied for a safe harbor from liability if someone should contract coronavirus when the University reopened. The provisions of the SAFE TO WORK Act, part of the HEALS Act package, would create a “targeted, temporary safe harbor from liability for organizations, including colleges and universities, that comply with federal, state, and local public health standards during the pandemic,” Jacob wrote in an email to the News. 

Last May, the American Council on Education sent a letter to Congressional leaders asking for liability shields for schools that decided to open up campus this fall. The Connecticut Conference of Independent Colleges, of which Yale is a member, signed onto the letter. 

“As colleges and universities contemplate whether and how to safely reopen this fall, their overriding concern is keeping students, faculty, staff, and local communities safe,” the letter reads. “These decisions are not premised on making a trade-off between safety and the economy. Nor are institutions of higher education seeking a free pass to avoid responsibility, much less immunize themselves for their own or others’ bad acts.”

The letter added that colleges should have to follow all “applicable public-health standards” to be shielded from liability. Still, “truly bad actors” should be liable for misconduct, the letter explained. The letter came prior to July and therefore was not included in the most recent lobbying disclosures — which only includes three months. Still, it provides insight into Yale’s stance on the issue.

Republicans, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and President Donald Trump, were largely supportive of creating safe harbors for businesses, while many Democratic representatives opposed the idea.

In an email to the News, law professor Jonathan R. Macey LAW ’82 wrote that Democrats may have opposed creating a liability safe harbor for colleges and universities because lawyers are a large source of donations for the Democratic Party. Safe harbors reduce litigation and legal fees, Macey wrote.

He explained that someone might be able to win a case against a University if they contract the coronavirus on campus.

“The questions are whether the university was acting reasonably in general and, with respect to following public health guidelines, [and] whether there is any basis for the university to rely on the particular set of guidelines at issue in formulating policies to protect students, faculty and staff,” Macey wrote.

In its stance on foreign gift reporting and coronavirus liability, the University aligned with its peers. The Association of American Universities signed onto the American Council of Education letter asking for a safe harbor. The Association is made up of 65 leading research universities, including Yale, Harvard and Princeton. 

“In each of these cases, Yale’s position was consistent with the views of higher education associations and peer institutions,” Jacob wrote in an email to the News. 

The University’s other lobbying efforts included supporting bills that would help international students get visas to come to the U.S. Additionally, Yale lobbied in support of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program and supported increased funding for federal science agencies.

“We try to be as supportive as we can of DACA students,” Lewis said. “The program has been in a bit of legal limbo the past few years so it’s been hard to join the program. We hope to see that revived so that students in that situation will be able to participate fully as part of the United States and as Yale students.”

Yale spends about $500,000 per year on its lobbying efforts. The disclosure amount represents the approximate salary cost for people engaged in these efforts. The University’s lobbying efforts include writing comment letters, filing amicus briefs and speaking with government officials. University President Peter Salovey frequently meets with lawmakers over Zoom. Often, Lewis said, Yale’s views will align with the state of Connecticut’s, and the University will work with the state government as a partner.

Yale is required to disclose its lobbying activity under the Lobbying Disclosure Act of 1995.

Rose Horowitch | rose.horowitch@yale.edu