The University of Utah received $3 million from foreign donors last year

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) University of Utah students enjoy the warm weather on Thursday, March 28, 2019. The U. received $3 million in foreign donations in the last academic year, the most in Utah, but far below what some bigger colleges in other states have received.

The University of Utah received more than $3 million last year from foreign investors — by far the most of any school in the state.

As Utah’s flagship research institution, it isn’t unusual for the U. to consistently bring in more money from outside the country than its peers. But for the 2018-2019 school year, it raked in more in gifts than ever before.

Most of the historic total came from Canada, according to an annual transparency report released Friday by the Utah System of Higher Education. The $2.1 million from there was donated exclusively from a foundation set up by Canadian native Pierre Lassonde, a U. alumnus. And it supported the Lassonde Studios Program, an entrepreneurship initiative at the school.

Another $212,000 was donated by businessmen in China and went to the Confucius Institute at the U., which supports Chinese culture and language programs in the state. And $123,000 was from Israel for private research. Others donated from Egypt, Germany, Japan and South Korea.

“The university’s total operating budget for fiscal year 2018 was just over $4.5 billion, so foreign donations represent a very small percentage of our overall budget,” said university spokesman Chris Nelson. “That said, we agree that transparency and public reporting of this financial information is important.”

In total, the U. accounted for more than 90% of all foreign donations to the eight public colleges in the state.

Only two others received any gifts: Utah State University in Logan and Utah Valley University in Orem. USU got $200,000 from a single donor in Switzerland for scholarships and endowments. UVU picked up $50,000 from a Chinese national in Canada that was unconditional.

By state law, all eight of the state’s public colleges are required to report and itemize any foreign investments more than $50,000. A gift can include a scholarship, grant or any kind of property. It does not mean tuition or fees from international students.

In the 2017-2018 school year, the U. received $2.5 million, with most going toward the Lassonde Studios. Before that, it got $1.76 million.

USU, meanwhile, has continued to receive donations from only that single donor — Ardeshir Zahedi. He has contributed nearly $1 million over the past four years. Zahedi is a career Iranian diplomat. Now in his 90s, he graduated from Utah State in 1950 with a degree in agriculture.

In 2010, state legislators passed the measure mandating that colleges annually report on their foreign gifts and who gave them. The bill squeaked by despite concerns it would scare off potential donors by probing their citizenship status. In the years since, donations have only grown in size.

Former Rep. Carl Wimmer sponsored the bill and said, at the time, "We need to know who’s attempting to influence curricula and possibly buy favors from our institutions.”

Utah’s gifts, though, pale in comparison to those given to larger colleges nationwide.

Federally, universities in the United States only have to report donations totaling more than $250,000. The Trump administration has begun cracking down on those reports — suggesting that the Department of Education has been too lenient in the past.

Some of the bigger universities in the country have pulled in hundreds of millions of dollars in the past few years. Georgetown University, for example, in Washington, D.C., received more than $415 million from abroad since 2012 and $36 million last year, according to a report from The Associated Press. Most of that funding came from Qatar, an oil-rich nation in the Middle East.

Texas A&M, which is under investigation by the federal government, has picked up $285 million from foreign sources over the past five years, including $6.1 million last year alone.

Congressional testimony from February suggested that fewer than 3% of schools are correctly reporting their overseas donations.