- Florida’s public colleges can no longer work with or accept grants from certain countries, like China, without a higher ed governing board’s permission under a new law signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis this week.
- Other countries the legislation targets are Russia, Iran, Cuba, North Korea, Syria and Venezuela. Colleges cannot partner with those nations — which includes student exchange or study abroad programs — without approval from boards that lead the State University System of Florida, a collection of four-year universities, or the Florida College System, which has both two- and four-year colleges.
- Public colleges and their employees also can’t solicit or accept gifts from those “countries of concern.”
The new law represents an escalation of a national-scale conservative campaign to weed out influence in American higher education from some countries, especially China. This began with the Trump administration, which prioritized enforcement of a law that requires colleges to report foreign gifts and contracts worth $250,000 or more in a year.
Trump officials accused colleges of shirking their reporting obligations, and alleged that institutions failed to disclose billions of dollars in foreign money.
DeSantis, a Republican, has made cracking down on China a policy plank ahead of his presumed 2024 presidential run. He spearheaded passing a 2021 law that mandates state colleges disclose donations from foreign entities worth $50,000 or more.
DeSantis’ office presented the new bill, signed Monday, as a way of counteracting “the malign influence of the Chinese Communist Party in the state of Florida.”
Public colleges and universities that don’t receive governing board authorization for a foreign partnership could have their state performance-based funding revoked, according to the legislation.
The law, which begins taking effect July 1, also dictates that Florida’s two higher ed systems provide lawmakers and the governor a summary of grant programs, agreements or contracts with foreign entities by December 2024.
The legislation will assuredly complicate Florida colleges’ relationships with Chinese institutions.
Many state public colleges already maintain partnerships with Chinese colleges, such as the University of Florida’s College of Education, which works on teacher preparation with Nanjing Xiaozhuang University and Jiangsu Second Normal University.
Since 2014, Nanjing Xiaozhuang undergraduates have studied at the Gainesville institution and participated in a full-year, customized teacher preparation program. The exchange initiative was expanded to Jiangsu Second Normal in 2016.
However, the leader of the State University System of Florida — which governs the University of Florida and 11 other colleges — in an emailed statement Tuesday celebrated the bill signing.
Ray Rodrigues, system chancellor and a DeSantis ally, said that academia is based on collaboration in search of truth “and that can be abused by those who seek to abuse it. Florida is the #1 state in the nation for higher education, placing a target on our back by those determined to use the realm of academia to pursue their own nefarious ends.”
The new legislation “will prevent these foreign countries of concern from having access to our world-class academic programs, will safeguard our copyrights and patents, and will prevent this abuse from occurring in our great state,” Rodrigues said.
A spokesperson for the Florida College System, which runs 28 public institutions, did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday.
Generally, American higher ed has close ties to China. Many more students from China have come to study in the U.S. over the last decade. An analysis from the Common App last month found that the largest number of international applications in the 2021-22 academic year came from China.
But this relationship has frayed somewhat in recent years, an example being the decline of Confucius Institutes. These Chinese cultural education programs have been accused of pushing propaganda into U.S. classrooms.
Lawmakers in 2019 grew concerned with Confucius Institutes after a Senate subcommittee investigation found nearly 70% of colleges that received more than $250,000 in funding from Hanban — the affiliate of the Chinese Ministry of Education that manages the institutes — failed to properly report that information to the federal government.
In 2017, Confucius Institutes numbered around 118 on college campuses, according to a Congressional Research Service report this month. Only roughly seven remain as of December, the report states.