Panic among University of Florida faculty began this month when word began to spread: Don't make offers yet to graduate students from seven “countries of concern.”
Among the seven was China, the largest source of international students at Florida, a major research university, particularly in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
The guidance arose from a new law that Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, a Republican, and state lawmakers said was designed to prevent the Chinese Communist Party from having influence over the state's public institutions.
It is still unclear whether the law outright prohibits the University of Florida and other schools from hiring Chinese students. But varying instructions given to professors in recent days have sown uncertainty at the school, Florida's flagship campus, just as admissions committees are beginning to review graduate student applications for next year.
The measure, passed this spring, restricts public universities and colleges from “accepting grants or participating in partnerships or agreements” with individuals or schools from seven countries: China, Russia, Iran, North Korea, Cuba, Venezuela and Syria.
Researchers are concerned that the law has already had the effect of scaring away talented Chinese students, who are also considering graduate schools and research opportunities in other states and countries. The law and its ramifications come as a growing number of Republican-led states have imposed new bans on Chinese citizens and entities amid rising tensions between the United States and China.
“These students are worried about being discriminated against if they come to Florida,” said Qianqian Song, an assistant professor of bioinformatics at the University of Florida.
In recent days, she said, she has been inundated with questions from applicants after articles about the Florida law were published on Chinese social media and major news websites. She said losing top recruits would be a blow to her research, which uses artificial intelligence algorithms to better understand diseases such as cancer.
Last week, professors at the University of Florida sent a petition to leaders, including Ben Sasse, the university's president, who previously served in the Senate as a Nebraska Republican, asking for clearer guidelines on hiring international researchers.
What was at stake, the petition said, was nothing less than the school's “position as a top university.” By Thursday, more than 300 teachers had signed it.
Florida's original bill was part of a package passed by the state Legislature aimed at combating the CCP's influence. Under the law, students can be hired on a case-by-case basis with approval from the Board of Governors that oversees state universities, but it is not yet clear how that process would work.
In a statement, a university spokesperson said the law had been passed unanimously by the Florida legislature and did not affect enrollment or scholarships.
“The university's obligation is to comply with the restriction, and the administration has communicated the law clearly to deans and center directors,” said Steve Orlando, associate vice president for communications at the University of Florida. He said the school was still working on policies and procedures to comply with the new law.
The University of Florida is not prohibited by law from admitting students from the seven countries, but doctoral students typically receive an accompanying job offer, usually in the form of a research or teaching assistant position.
The professors' petition stated that the university enrolls more than 1,000 students from the seven countries covered by the law each fall. In 2020, 1,100 students (40 percent of the University of Florida's total graduate students) came from China, while 83 students were from Iran.
While awaiting further guidance, some academic departments at the University of Florida are weighing the possibility of interviewing candidates from all seven countries. At least one committee is trying to find a way to rescind verbal offers that have already been made, said Meera Sitharam, a computer science professor and president of the university's faculty union.
Across the country, two dozen states have proposed or enacted laws that would restrict Chinese purchases of land, buildings and homes, citing concerns about national security threats. Tensions have been stoked this year by the Chinese spy balloon that floated over the United States and by anti-China rhetoric from Republican presidential candidates.
In May, at the same time DeSantis signed the research restriction, he approved one of the strictest versions of a land ownership ban, effectively prohibiting Chinese nationals from purchasing property within 10 miles of any military base or critical infrastructure. like airports. . Both laws went into effect in July.
“Florida is taking action to confront America's greatest geopolitical threat: the Chinese Communist Party,” DeSantis said in a statement as he signed the laws, adding, “We are fulfilling our commitment to crack down on communists.” Porcelain.”
In the Republican-led House of Representatives, there has been talk of reinstating the “China Initiative,” a Justice Department program that was designed to combat Chinese espionage by targeting investigators working in the United States. The initiative was scrapped last year amid criticism that it had crippled scientific research and contributed to racial discrimination.
Civil rights advocates have said such policies take a broad approach to national security threats and lead to greater discrimination against Chinese and Asian Americans generally. Gisela Pérez Kusakawa, executive director of the Asian American Scholar Forum, said the Florida law was another example of “instilling fear and scapegoating Chinese American immigrants and students in the country.”
Richard Woodard, a physics professor at the University of Florida, said he shared concerns about potential security risks outlined by DeSantis and other top state officials, and supported more rigorous investigation by foreign researchers. But Woodard said he did not want an outright ban on entry of students and academics from China.
“Many of our best professors are from China,” Woodard said, adding that “the Chinese are our best graduate students.”
“Our investigation will not stop if there are no more left,” he added, “but it will hurt us.”
Chenglong Li, a senior professor of medicinal chemistry at the University of Florida, said he was concerned that restricting international students from countries like China and Iran would cut off a pipeline of talent that has been crucial to America's global scientific dominance.
Some might put Mr. Li's experience as an example of that pipeline. He came to the United States more than 30 years ago after the Chinese government's bloody crackdown on student protesters in Tiananmen Square in 1989.
Since then, Mr. Li's research in the United States has contributed to the development of targeted cancer treatments that could produce fewer side effects than previous approaches.
“If you don't want to deal with any Chinese government or business institutions, that's fine with me, I don't care,” he said. “But most Chinese students who come here just want to stay in this country to pursue the American dream. “They have nothing to do with the government.”
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