Professors, students say ‘no’ to Florida as new law targets Chinese

Academics are starting to vote with their feet after Florida enacted a law that makes it harder for public schools in the state to hire Chinese students and collaborate with Chinese institutions.

Last year, with an eye to curb Chinese influence in the state, Governor Ron DeSantis signed into law a bill requiring state colleges and universities to get government approval before they hire or work with Chinese people who aren’t US citizens or green card holders.

Since then, schools in the state have scrambled to comply. In December, Miami-based Florida International University paused the hiring of Chinese and citizens of six other “countries of concern” also targeted by the law – Iran, Cuba, North Korea, Russia, Syria and Venezuela – while waiting for the state university system’s board of governors to create a vetting process.

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But, even as a lawsuit contesting the measure plays out, critics of the law doubt that the two bodies overseeing approvals – the state university system’s board of governors and the state board of education – will give students and researchers a fair assessment since members of both are appointed by DeSantis.

Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida, a Republican, signed the legislation into law last year. Photo: Getty Images

“Requiring the board of governors’ approval means it is next to impossible to obtain approval,” said Sumi Helal, a professor of computer and information science and engineering at the University of Florida.

Helal said he was “intent on leaving” the school.

Jiangeng Xue, a materials science and engineering professor at the University of Florida, said a professor in the medical school not of Chinese heritage credited the new law as a reason for his departure from the university.

Xue added that two candidates for the school’s chemistry and physics departments declined tenure-track offers because of the hiring restrictions resulting from the law.

For months, faculty members have been rumbling about leaving Florida because of what they see as the latest ideological encroachment in its education space – a move that they say will rob them of top talent.

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In 2022, the highly ranked University of Florida sparked controversy by selecting then senator Ben Sasse, a Republican from Nebraska and DeSantis loyalist, as its new president. Critics saw the decision as a harbinger of a greater crackdown on academic freedom, amid a statewide conservative push against critical race theory and transgender rights.

Students, too, have decided that Florida is too risky.

One user on Chinese lifestyle platform Xiaohongshu said he was declining Florida State University’s electrical engineering PhD offer primarily because of the new law, even though his potential adviser was eager to proceed with the necessary steps to get him funding.

“I feel so unlucky that political impacts make me very anxious because I cannot foresee what will happen in following years, better or worse to Chinese students?” the user said.

“Although Florida is one of my favourite states with comfortable weather and charming landscapes ... I have to stay away from learning there or I may be expelled in the worst cases led by political forces,” he continued.

Opponents of a new Florida law that makes it harder for public schools in the state to hire Chinese students and collaborate with Chinese institutions protest on March 26 in Gainesville, where the University of Florida is located. Photo: Asian American Scholar Forum

A user from Shanghai who received an offer from the University of Florida said he was opting to attend Pennsylvania State University instead, while a woman who was accepted by the same Gainesville-based university said she was vacillating between deferring or rejecting a PhD offer from the school’s College of Design, Construction and Planning.

Another said he was forgoing coming to the United States altogether, after deciding to decline a PhD offer in mathematics from Florida Atlantic University. The user, who hails from Guangzhou, noted that he had already deferred his admissions once because of the political uncertainty and no longer “dares to come”.

According to Peng Xiong, a physics professor at Florida State University, the new law came up frequently in recent interviews with faculty candidates, particularly for those wanting to pursue physics and quantum science.

“It’s undoubtedly one of the top concerns of our faculty candidates who originally came from China,” he said.

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The law, designated SB 846 by the state legislature, and the resulting guidance do not discriminate between academic disciplines that are related to national security and those that are not. In 2021, DeSantis began citing national security concerns to justify anti-Chinese influence laws.

“Make no mistake – China is a hostile foreign power, and every governor has the responsibility to protect their education system, and every other entity within their purview, from the espionage and commercial theft undertaken by the Chinese Communist Party,” he said at the time.

Last year, DeSantis said his anti-Chinese influence efforts provided a “blueprint for other states to do the same”.

And according to political observers in the state, the governor may double down on his education policies. David McDonald, a political science professor at the University of Florida, said that “being an education ‘culture warrior’” was a “perceived strength of his when conservative activists helped push critical race theory and anti-trans rhetoric and policies onto the political agenda”.

Some Chinese students say they have decided not to attend graduate school in Florida as a result of the law. Pictured is the University of Florida in Gainesville. Photo: Getty Images

Last month, two graduate students at Florida International University and a University of Florida professor filed a lawsuit against members of Florida’s department of education and state university system’s board of governors.

The students, Zhipeng Yin and Zhen Guo, said the law has forced them to put their studies on hold. The professor, Zhengfei Guan, said it has slowed his publishing productivity and prevented him from recruiting the most qualified postdoctoral candidates. Guan claimed that one such candidate from China accepted a competing offer outside of Florida due to delays in processing their application.

The lawsuit alleges that SB 846 usurps the power of the federal government, which has exclusive authority over immigration, national security and foreign affairs.

It also says the law violates federal equal protection guarantees as it “explicitly discriminates based upon alienage”. Non-immigrant status, the lawsuit points out, is subject to “strict scrutiny”, a requirement that the government prove that the challenged law is “narrowly tailored to serve compelling state interests”.

The law disproportionately burdens Chinese individuals, the lawsuit continues, thousands of whom study at public schools in the state. In 2020, Chinese students accounted for 1,100 – or 40 per cent – of the international graduate student population at the University of Florida.

Asked to explain alleged delays in approving Chinese researchers, the Florida state university system’s board of governors declined to comment, saying it does not speak on pending litigation. Florida’s department of education, which oversees state colleges, also declined to comment.

After the lawsuit became public two weeks ago, 24 students, faculty and professional groups held a rally against SB 846 in Gainesville.

“Our academic community thrives on international collaboration. SB 846 is a malicious and xenophobic bill that directly attacks our community,” said Eva Garcia Ferres, co-president of Graduate Assistants United at the University of Florida.

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“Decisions on who to hire, what to teach and what to research have always been made by the experts of the field. Here in Florida, this is no longer true,” she continued.

Ferres noted that SB 846’s implementing guidance, which asks schools to describe the “risks” and benefits of collaboration when applying for approvals to work with people from countries of concern, fails to clarify how risks are being assessed.

Last month’s rally follows a petition to Sasse signed by more than 300 Florida-based academics to clarify the vague guidelines that have resulted from the law. They noted that restrictions on hiring Chinese students would not only harm the state’s intellectual climate and academic reputation but also its economic competitiveness.

“UF and US research dominance has been fuelled by the best minds of the world. The engineering research and economic benefits provided by these students to the state of Florida definitely outweigh perceived security risks,” said signatory Malisa Sarntinoranont, a professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at the University of Florida.

Ben Sasse, a former Republican senator from Nebraska, is now the president of the University of Florida. Photo: EPA-EFE

Leo Yu, a clinical professor of law at Southern Methodist University in Texas, called SB 846, along with a separate law that restricts Chinese people from owning property, reminiscent of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, a repealed law that restricted immigration from China.

He said he was already discouraging his graduate students from going to Florida for further education. “There’s a lot of storms happening there...what you see is really just the tip of the iceberg.”

But the pending lawsuit means there may be slightly brighter days ahead for students and researchers hoping to make their way to the Sunshine State.

“There is no doubt that the plaintiffs will be successful,” said Bob Jarvis, a law professor at Florida-based Nova Southeastern University.

“Not only does Florida’s new law violate numerous federal laws that prohibit discrimination on the basis of national origin, the law impermissibly intrudes on the federal government’s exclusive [powers],” he said.

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