Florida Restricts Foreign Researchers

Ian Oxnevad

CounterCurrent: Week of 04/08/2024

CounterCurrent: China Edition is a monthly newsletter of the National Association of Scholars uncovering and highlighting the effects of the Chinese Communist Party's influence on American education.

Higher education is geopolitical, and in an era where states increasingly take the lead on national security threats, Florida universities find themselves at the center of academia and power politics. Last week, students and faculty at Florida’s public universities began protesting SB 846, the state’s new law prohibiting Florida’s public universities from partnering with “countries of concern” such as China, Syria, Russia, Iran, North Korea, Venezuela, and Cuba. Like so many other current debates over sovereignty, Florida’s new law faces a legal challenge from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and plaintiffs alleging that it “casts a cloud of suspicion” over researchers from China.

Florida’s law is not only needed nationally in order to thwart hostile powers from accessing dual-use technologies via taxpayer-funded fundamental research, but the outcome of the lawsuit will determine whether educational sovereignty prevails over the openness of American academia. Academia offers foreign powers access to high-level policymakers, sensitive technologies, and a readymade cover for intelligence gathering. The governments on Florida’s blacklist are far from benign, they include not only the world’s most notorious human rights offenders and terrorist backers, but also Russia seeking to spread its cause for invading Ukraine and sowing dissent among Western backers.

Florida’s measure against foreign influence was signed into law last May, and bans public universities from either partnering with or accepting financial gifts from hostile powers. Countries such as North Korea and Syria are not known for their high-end donations to American colleges; however, Iran, China, and Russia have proven capable of accessing the highest echelons of education. The effects of these efforts are not only detrimental to national security but highlight the need for Florida’s legislation.

China’s financial influence in American higher education is well-known. In 2020, Congress noted that tuition from Chinese students amounted to $12 billion per year while publicly-known contributions in the form of contracts and donations amounted to over $426 million going back to 2011. In light of further revelations during the past four years, this estimated value of Chinese gifts may be conservative. Harvard alone received over $100 million, while the University of Pennsylvania received $54.6 million from 2014 to 2019. Across the country, the University of California Berkeley obtained $240 million for a joint high-tech program largely funded by the Chinese municipality of Shenzhen.

Thanks to the lack of export controls on fundamental research and the quality of technology developed at American universities, higher education is a prime target for foreign powers seeking to expedite the acquisition of sensitive technologies. For example, Georgia Tech recently developed a graphene semiconductor while working with China’s Tianjin University. Graphene not only has extensive military applications, including hypersonic weapons. In Britain, graphene labs at the University of Manchester were targeted by Chinese spies studying there as students. Florida appears to be onto something with its concern.

Iranian funds are less of a problem for American universities than faculty with sketchy ties to Tehran’s theocrats. Recently, Princeton University began facing renewed calls to fire Seyed Moussavian, a former Iranian diplomat working as a Middle East security and nuclear policy expert at the university. During his time as a diplomat, Moussavian oversaw a post in Germany connected to the assassinations of multiple dissidents. At Oberlin College, professor or religious studies, Mohammad Jafar Mahallati, is suspected of having worked to cover up the mass murder of 5,000 political prisoners in Iran in 1988.

Universities offer foreign powers a poorly-guarded entry to some of the highest levels of foreign policy. Last Fall, the Biden administration’s envoy to Iran, Robert Malley, was suspended over ties to an Iranian influence campaign that partly targeted academics. Shortly after being placed on leave from the State Department, Malley was promptly hired by Princeton University. Malley was also hired by Yale University to teach a seminar titled “Contending with Israel-Palestine.” As anti-Semitism becomes synonymous with the Ivy League, professors with ties to Iran must be considered as one likely source of such sentiment.

One of the of the objections to SB 846 raised by the ACLU is that the law “will codify discrimination against people of Asian descent,” and that it will “cast undue suspicion on anyone seeking to study whose name sounds remotely Asian, Russian, Iranian, Cuban, Venezuelan, or Syrian.” The law does nothing to discriminate against those of Chinese descent, since if it did, the law would have included Taiwan and Singapore among its list of problematic countries. Individuals tied to Russian, Venezuelan, Cuban, and Iranian institutions are already discriminated against to varying degrees by the Federal Government in the form of sanctions related to terrorism, money laundering, and weapons of mass destruction.

Chinese spying is a problem for U.S. campuses. Last October at a meeting of the “Five Eyes,” an intelligence cooperative between the United States, United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada, noted that universities are a crucial component to Chinese espionage. Canadian Security Intelligence Service chief David Vigneault noted that “Western companies and universities need to be “clear-eyed” about how China is stealing technology and trying to attract expertise and raw research from universities.” Canada has urged its universities to cut ties with China after discovering that 50 universities in the country were found to be working with Chinese counterparts on technology ranging from quantum cryptography to robotics and photonics. Indeed, some of the Chinese scientists were tied to Beijing’s military. The naivete of the ACLU’s accusations about the Florida law is unbecoming.

Florida’s law is a step forward towards treating universities as the national resources worthy of protection from adversaries. Universities upset at losing researchers from China can easily make up the lost expertise by working closer with universities in Japan, India, the Philippines, or any other country worried about China’s encroachment in East Asia. The same can be said for the pearl clutching over losing access to researchers from Syria and Iran. The U.S. has plenty of allies in the Middle East that not only do not support terrorism, but produce excellent researchers in hard sciences.

Last week, we stated that Florida’s law is a step in the right direction, but should have been tailored to more effectively avoid legal challenge. The stakes of getting this right are high. Ultimately, the outcome of the case between Florida and the ACLU will have a significant effect on sovereignty. States like Florida and Texas are working to curtail the largest crisis involving illegal immigration in American history, just as the Federal government is proving unable or unwilling to effectively respond to it. The Tenth Amendment has been a sticking point to American politics since the Constitution was enacted, and now higher education will be included among the many issues it raises. Florida sees the risks to higher education and sovereignty. Hopefully, the Sunshine State prevails.

Photo by Matt Seymour on Unsplash

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