Florida Turns Up the Heat on Foreign Influence

David Acevedo

CounterCurrent: Week of 6/13

Last week, Governor Ron DeSantis (R-FL) signed into law a pair of bills targeting malign foreign influence in Florida higher education—House Bill 7017 and House Bill 1523. This crucial legislation will help curb propaganda, espionage, and research theft by foreign governments in the state, making Florida the gold standard when it comes to enforcing educational transparency and security.

H.B. 7017 takes issue with foreign gifts to higher education institutions and promotes transparency—an issue of concern for the National Association of Scholars. Every year, foreign governments pour millions of dollars into American higher education, purchasing undue influence within these institutions and, in some cases, stealing research in the process. Laws regulating the disclosure of these gifts have been lax, only requiring schools to report gifts exceeding $250,000 per year. They’ve also been poorly enforced, essentially allowing institutions to receive funds from any foreign nation they wish without informing the federal government.

Case in point: Just last year, the Department of Education uncovered over $6.5 billion (yes, billion with a “b”) in previously undisclosed gifts, including donations from China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Qatar—not exactly a list of America’s best friends. Secretary DeVos described the Department’s findings as representative of “four decades of pervasive noncompliance”; in other words, this problem has been really bad for a really long time.

America’s higher education lobby recoiled from these disclosures. A few days after the 2020 election, the American Council on Education requested that the new administration stop enforcement of Section 117 (foreign gift disclosure) of the Higher Education Act. 

H.B. 7017 lowers the disclosure threshold to $50,000—the threshold which the NAS has proposed—and requires schools to specify whether gifts came from a “foreign country of concern,” of which it lists seven: “the People's Republic of China, the Russian Federation, the Islamic Republic of Iran, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, the Republic of Cuba, the Venezuelan regime of Nicolás Maduro, or the Syrian Arab Republic.”

Meanwhile, H.B. 1523 increases criminal penalties for research theft, another issue plaguing American higher education. The Chinese Communist Party is by far the worst offender in this regard—the NAS counts 47 instances of researchers who have been charged with illegal ties to China, many of whom, the government argues, failed to disclose their ties to the Chinese military or other CCP entities before receiving federal (taxpayer) funding. H.B. 1523 will help dissuade such insidious behavior by beefing up the penalties for doing so.

Some are critical of these two bills, claiming that the legislation will foment anti-Asian racism in Florida. For example, one Tallahassee resident—a Korean-American—voiced concerns about the perception “That people are coming to this country, and they are, you know, they're going to have these secret spies to take over this country … That's part of the ‘Yellow Peril’ myth that is, you know, here in our country.” As I explain here, this argument falls flat for several reasons. 

These two foreign influence bills join Governor DeSantis’ stellar record of recent education reforms. Just a few days ago, DeSantis and the Florida Board of Education approved new guidelines restricting the use of Critical Race Theory in Florida K-12 schools, a welcome move that will help spare the state’s students from this hateful, intellectually bankrupt pedagogy and that will promote unbiased history education in Florida.

The National Association of Scholars commends Governor DeSantis and the Florida Legislature for their fine work and urges the other 49 states to follow suit quickly. Congress should quickly amend Section 117 of the Higher Education Act to lower the reporting threshold to match Florida’s new disclosure law.

P.S. Do you find yourself struggling to keep up with the panoply of social justice newspeak pervading, well, everything? I certainly do. To help us out, NAS Board Member Bruce Gilley, along with Peter Boghossian and James Lindsay, have created a handy cheat-sheet called “Responding to Social Justice Rhetoric.” I recommend you check it out—you may find the cheat-sheet here.

CounterCurrent is the National Association of Scholars’ weekly newsletter, written by Communications & Research Associate David Acevedo. To subscribe, update your email preferences here.

Image: Gage Skidmore, Wikimedia CommonsCreative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license, cropped.

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