Florida universities quiet over ban on hiring Chinese academics

State law against foreign scholars allows institutions to pursue exceptions, but faculty and students are largely left to wage protests

April 22, 2024
A performer putting his head between the gaping fangs of a crocodile to illustrate Florida universities quiet over ban on hiring Chinese academics
Source: Anusak Laowilas/NurPhoto/Getty Images

Florida’s public universities appear to have opted against seeking exceptions to a state law restricting their hiring of scientists from China, reflecting what experts see as the extreme difficulty of their political environment.

The law, in effect for most of the past year, forbids institutions from creating or maintaining partnerships with entities in China and six other nations the US regards as problematic.

The restrictions include general bans on the hiring of researchers and scholars from such countries by the state’s 12 public colleges and universities. Exceptions can be granted only by the board of governors that oversees the State University System of Florida.

The state government’s order fits with a series of actions in recent years by political conservatives around the US – often led by Florida and its Republican governor, Ron DeSantis – to assert control over academia and express right-of-centre perspectives on global politics.

But the law on foreign partnerships – covering China, Russia, Iran, North Korea, Cuba, Venezuela and Syria – looms as especially harmful to universities and the communities they serve.

The University of Florida alone typically has more than 1,000 graduate students from China and the other targeted countries, who play major roles in teaching and research. Those numbers are now believed to be running at about half that level.

Restricting or preventing such hiring has “a devastating impact on our graduate programmes and research activities”, greatly harming the institution’s reputation, a group of more than 400 University of Florida faculty have argued in a petition.

More than 100 people backed that position through a demonstration last month on the university’s Gainesville campus.

One of the University of Florida professors, along with two graduate students from Florida International University, earlier filed a suit against state officials over the matter. The faculty member, Zhengfei Guan, an associate professor of food and resource economics, had been seeking to hire a postdoctoral candidate from China. The FIU students, both from China, said they were fired from their jobs as laboratory assistants because of the law.

Groups assisting their case include the Chinese American Legal Defense Alliance, which provides free legal representation to Chinese Americans who have suffered from racial bias.

Its president, Clay Zhu, said he did not know of any attempts by Florida universities to test the law by asking the board of governors to grant exemptions. That apparent acquiescence, Mr Zhu said, might reflect the fact that the law was written so broadly as to make exceptions seem unlikely. That, he said, “may force the universities to enforce the law strictly”.

The situation fits with a pattern in recent years in which university leaders in Florida and elsewhere in the US have largely remained silent rather than challenge political manoeuvres that experts widely see as damaging to their institutions, often leaving such battles to faculty and students.

Florida had previously enacted a law requiring its state universities to impose an additional security-related review on the hiring of any foreign researcher or any US national who studied or worked outside the country for at least a year.

Mr DeSantis signed the new law last May, just ahead of his entry into the 2024 US presidential race, saying he was acting “to stand against the United States’ greatest geopolitical threat – the Chinese Communist Party”.


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Reader's comments (1)

Florida is rare in its honesty. Accepting that China poses a threat is difficult since a reliance on Chinese students and staff has become so ingrained. I hold my hands up since I have had many collaborations with Chinese colleagues both at home and abroad. However, the time has come to disengage as quickly as is possible.