Editor's note: This story had been updated from its original version to include a respond from the U.S. Department of Education.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — The U.S. Department of Education alleges the University of Alabama failed to disclose ties with the Wuhan Institute of Virology in China after a reference on the facility's website displayed a partnership with the school earlier this year. UA says the reference does appear on the website, but is not valid, with university officials working to remedy the situation before then reporting the information to federal authorities.
The institute has been at the center of controversy amid the raging coronavirus pandemic, with the current administration's general counsel saying the virological institute includes a maximum biocontainment laboratory "that may be closely linked to the origin and/or spread of the Chinese COVID-19 virus."
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In a 7-page letter submitted to UA President Stuart Bell on Tuesday and obtained by Patch, Principal Deputy General Counsel Reed D. Rubinstein said claiomed the inquiry was spurred under accusations that the university failed to disclose partnerships with the Wuhan institute, along with requesting records for gifts and donations from a wide-range of foreign institutions and groups.
Rubinstein cited potential violations of Section 117 of the Higher Education Act of 1965 (20 U.S.C. § 1011f), which requires institutions of higher education to fully report statutorily defined gifts, contracts, and/or restricted and conditional gifts or contracts from or with a foreign source to the federal government.
More specifically, investigators are requesting records dating back through Jan. 1, 2015 relating to partnerships with entities such as the Chinese Communist Party and the University of Beijing, as well as a host of other Chinese research universities.
In a statement to Patch, the University of Alabama said the reference on the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) website was brought to the school's attention earlier this year.
"At that time, we reviewed any possible related institutional records to determine the basis for the reference," the university said. "We found no ties or connection between UA and WIV, and no reason for UA to be listed on the website."
UA officials also reportedly reached out to the Wuhan institute to question the reference and requested it be removed. Receiving no response, UA then said it relayed the information to the U.S. Department of Education.
Rubinstein also provided the online link showing mention of the University of Alabama on the website for the Wuhan Institute of Virology as the chief piece of evidence in the request. Alabama is mentioned first under a list of U.S. partners, followed by the University of North Texas, EcoHealth Alliance, Harvard University, The National Institutes of Health and the United States National Wildlife Federation.
The methodology for the accusations also cites an article published on the website of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, an Israeli think-tank and research institution focused on the Middle East and global affairs. The article doesn't mention the University of Alabama, but does levy detailed accusations against researchers and government officials in China for lack of transparency and deliberate malfeasance resulting in the global coronavirus pandemic.
While Patch was able to make contact with federal officials, the request was passed to Angela Morabito — a spokesperson for the U.S. Department of Education — who said Wednesday evening that due to the ongoing nature of the investigation, additional comments would not be made at this time.
As many will remember, Wuhan has been in the headlines since before the start of the pandemic, becoming the presumed flashpoint of the coronavirus crisis in its beginning stages. The current administration of President Donald Trump, who is set to leave office in less than a month, still holds sway over the U.S. Department of Education and has been publicly hawkish on China and the Wuhan research facility since the first months of the pandemic. In April, Trump announced that U.S. intelligence officials were investigating whether or not the Wuhan institute and the Chinese government were responsible for the initial outbreak of the virus.
Theories have circulated about the origin of the virus and the subsequent spread, but little in the way of empirical evidence has been presented to give a definitive answer.
Also worth noting is the federal request for a "complete list identifying and providing the last known contact information for UA’s faculty and staff, including full and part time employees and contractors, potentially involved with the long list of Chinese entities provided in request. The request specifically asks for names, position(s) held, email addresses, mailing addresses, phone numbers," and a brief description of how they are connected to the foreign entities.
According to the letter, UA has 30 days to comply with the request. Since the request was made on Dec. 22, which would make the deadline fall on Jan. 21 — the day after the presidential inauguration.