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'Those folks are not welcome': How a DeSantis priority is changing Florida universities

Students walk across the Modesto A. Maidique Campus of Florida International University on Nov. 7, 2023.
Kate Payne
Students walk across the Modesto A. Maidique Campus of Florida International University on Nov. 7, 2023.

Florida International University in Miami has prided itself on the “International” part of its name for decades. It runs joint programs with other universities around the world, from Argentina to Vietnam.

But, in recent months, the school quietly shut down its single largest international campus in China: the Marriott Tianjin China Program, which offers degrees in hotel management. FIU also closed a Spanish-language dual degree program with Qingdao University.

The acknowledgement that the programs have been shuttered follows the abrupt deletion of those pages on the FIU website, as WLRN previously reported.

The closures followed the passage of a Florida law in 2023 that heavily scrutinizes and regulates how Florida’s public universities interact with institutions, governments and people from so-called “countries of concern.”

At the time of signing the law, Gov. Ron DeSantis singled out China, blaming the Chinese Communist Party and its agents for carrying out “higher education subterfuge.”

In a statement released by the governor’s office, he said: "Florida is taking action to stand against the United States' greatest geopolitical threat — the Chinese Communist Party … and to stop CCP influence in our education system from grade school to grad school."

READ MORE: Status of FIU's largest international student program is unclear, as school stays silent

Yet, there has been no public suggestions or proof that FIU’s hotel and Spanish programs in China have been involved in leaking secrets or holding undue influence over the school.

In a statement, Maydel Santana, a spokesperson for Florida International University, did not address the “subterfuge” the governor referred to.

Santana said that the closure of the programs in China was partly due to a shift in regulations about how the university charges tuition.

“It is also important to note that given the foreign countries of concern law, which we anticipated would go into effect by the end of 2023, we also would have been required to revisit the programs,” she wrote.

The Tianjin program was opened in 2006 on a $100 million campus fully paid for by the Chinese government. Former university president Mark Rosenberg made annual trips to attend graduation ceremonies, beginning in 2010.

The current status of FIU's Marriott Tianjin China Program is unclear amid a crackdown on how universities interact with the governments of China, Cuba, Venezuela, Russia, Iran, Syria and Russia. The campus was built and paid for by the Chinese government and the program operates as a partnership with the Tianjin University of Commerce. The website for the program has now been deleted.
FIU archived
FIU archived
The current status of FIU's Marriott Tianjin China Program is unclear amid a crackdown on how universities interact with the governments of China, Cuba, Venezuela, Russia, Iran, Syria and Russia. The campus was built and paid for by the Chinese government and the program operates as a partnership with the Tianjin University of Commerce. The website for the program has now been deleted.

WLRN and The World contacted over a dozen people at FIU for clarification and comments about the closures, but no one involved in the programs would go on-the-record beyond the single approved university statement.

“With respect to Tianjin University students, freshmen and sophomore students were given the option to change majors and remain at [Tianjin University of Commerce], or transfer to FIU and study in Miami, Florida,” reads the statement, sent by Santana. “All FIU students enrolled at the time were able to complete their program of studies.”

Florida has passed a series of laws over the last few years, cracking down on the alleged influence of the Chinese Communist Party and Chinese nationals in the state. Those laws include placing restrictions on Chinese citizens owning property in Florida and banning the TikTok app from state devices.

In 2020, at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, Florida sent out a survey to 100,000 businesses, asking if they are “owned or controlled by the Communist Party of China.” No Chinese communists were revealed.

That same year, a select committee of the Florida Legislature embarked on an investigation into whether China was infiltrating higher education institutions in Florida, after six cancer researchers were fired from the state-funded Moffitt Cancer Center due to secretly accepting payments from the Chinese government. Five of the six researchers were Americans.

"The Communist government of China uses an all-tools and all-sectors approach to acquiring American innovation and intellectual property and targeting cutting-edge research,” Michael McPherson, the FBI’s Special Agent in Charge for the Tampa area, told the Select Committee on the Integrity of Research Institutions in 2020. "These efforts are a threat to economic security and, by extension a threat to our national security.”

Several of the laws passed since then were based on the discussions about the alleged malign influence of China in Florida education.

The impact of the 2023 law goes well beyond China. That’s because it bans partnerships with six other “countries of concern”: Cuba, Venezuela, Iran, North Korea, Russia and Syria.

In December, Andres Gil, FIU’s dean of the University Graduate School, sent a memo to FIU department chairs and graduate program directors, announcing an immediate “pause” of hiring or recruiting anyone from those countries due to the new law. The Florida Board of Governors, which oversees the state university system, needed to approve any new hires, he wrote, and it was unclear how long the process might take.

A strong majority of the Board of Governors members are political appointees of DeSantis.

“We cannot guarantee any employment or position for individuals from countries of concern,” Gil wrote in the internal memo, obtained by WLRN and The World.

As a result, job offers that were already sent out to applicants hailing from the listed countries have been rescinded.

Impact on partnerships and hiring of talent

The impact of the law is especially sad for FIU in Miami, said Dan Royles, an associate professor of history at the university. That’s because the school has built a reputation and a niche for serving Cubans and Venezuelans who have fled those regimes, he said. And now they cannot work as graduate students helping teach in the classrooms without state approval.

“It really pushes us further away from FIU’s historic mission, which has been to serve students who are recent immigrants, to serve students who are the first in their families to go to college, to serve students from Latin America,” said Royles. “This is all performance politics.”

Hank Reichman, a professor emeritus of history at California State University East Bay, told The World that the new law risks moving Florida away from educational exchanges and international programs.

READ MORE: FIU professors strengthen their labor union after 'shock to the system' from state purge

“The benefits of the exchanges are so great that it is essential that we be as narrow and as surgical as we can be,” said Reichman, who has authored several books about academic freedom.

Reichman acknowledged there are legitimate concerns about intellectual property and foreign influence in higher education, especially in the hard sciences. But he warned that Florida is doubling up on scrutiny that is already being done at the federal level, creating additional barriers to educational programs in the name of national security.

“National security is national security,” said Reichman. “This is normally not a function of the states.”

Separately, the 2023 law has wreaked havoc on the University of Florida, after the state funded one of the world's largest supercomputers on the Gainesville campus.

DeSantis predicted that the supercomputer would make the school a magnet for research on artificial intelligence. But due to the law, the school has now found itself unable to attract talent from China and Iran to work on the the supercomputer, Bloomberg News reported this week. Both nations are on the "countries of concern" list, but have regularly have attracted researchers in the past.

“Any country that cuts itself off, wholly or in part, from international scientific exchange is shooting itself in the foot,” warned Reichman.

A request for comment from DeSantis' office was not returned.

The totality of the 2023 law is putting the state university system “at a competitive disadvantage” compared to other states, said Eric Scarffe, the president of United Faculty of Florida-FIU, the labor union for professors and faculty.

On the one hand, said Scarffe, recruiting Chinese researchers, especially those in the sciences, is going to be very difficult. Recruiting Cubans and Venezuelans, who often partake in the FIU’s Latin American, Caribbean studies and political science research, will also be hard.

“The Florida Legislature seems to be saying very loudly that those folks are not welcome,” said Scarffe. “We’re the number one ranked state university system in the country, and yet we seem to be preoccupied with passing laws to fundamentally change the nature of higher ed and institutions in the State of Florida.”

Correction: A previous version of this written article stated that six researchers were fired from the University of South Florida. The researchers were fired from the state-funded Moffitt Cancer Center, which has a facility on the University of South Florida campus. The entities are separate. We regret the error.

Copyright 2024 WLRN 91.3 FM. To see more, visit WLRN 91.3 FM.

Daniel Rivero is a reporter and producer for WLRN, covering Latino and criminal justice issues. Before joining the team, he was an investigative reporter and producer on the television series "The Naked Truth," and a digital reporter for Fusion.