Legislation prohibiting relationships between Florida’s higher education institutions and seven “foreign countries of concern” is now headed to the Senate floor.
The Senate Rules Committee voted unanimously for SB 846, which aims to block the governments of China, Cuba, Iran, North Korea, Russia, Syria and Venezuela from influencing state colleges, universities, their students and staff.
The bill, a priority measure for its sponsor, Miami Springs Republican Sen. Bryan Áivla, would ban state schools, their employees and representatives from soliciting or accepting gifts from those countries. It would also bar them from participating in any agreement or partnership with a school or entity based in or controlled by one of those nations.
Ávila amended his bill to match language in its House companion (HB 679), which cleared its final committee stop last week, and pushed back its effective date to Dec. 1 to “give the college and universities more time” to adjust.
Asked by Miami Gardens Democratic Sen. Shevrin Jones whether state colleges and universities could use “creative rulemaking” for research students and Ph.D. candidates whose studies might involve one of the troublesome countries, Ávila said yes.
“If a student is in a program in any of these foreign countries of concern … the (Board of Governors) or the State Board of Education, (through) rulemaking, would provide those alternatives on how to proceed so that students won’t be delayed,” he said.
Within the last decade, a series of incidents involving professors at universities absconding to China with intellectual property and possible military secrets sparked alarm among U.S. officials.
A former University of Florida professor, Lin Yang, was indicted in February 2021 for making false statements to U.S. officials and obtaining a $1.75 million grant from the National Institutes of Health under false pretenses. Yang had fled to China two years earlier.
Since 2016, four University of Central Florida professors fled to China as law enforcement sought to question some of them over their ties to Chinese institutions. Six Moffitt Cancer Center researchers resigned in 2019 following reports they didn’t disclose their ties to China. Miami Dade College also closed its Confucius Institute program in 2019 following accusations it was a front for the Chinese government to promote its interests.
The U.S. Department of State says China is engaged in “Military-Civil Fusion,” an aggressive national strategy to modernize its People’s Liberation Army as a “world-class military” by 2049 through the systematic targeting and theft of advanced technologies.
To achieve that goal, China has established partnerships with American schools, including 20 such arrangements that have either existed or are ongoing in Florida, according to Lakeland Republican Rep. Jennifer Canady, the House bill’s sponsor.
“Not all collaborations are problematic. Some of them are quite beneficial,” she said last month. “But common sense dictates that Florida universities must not have ties to the Chinese Communist Party (and the) civil-military fusion strategy that is often executed through research labs associated with Chinese universities.”
Canady said nearly 4.5% of the gifts Florida universities accepted last year came from the problematic countries, including 19 gifts from China and two from Russia. In total, the gifts — which ranged from goods, services and donated art to funding for research, degree and clinical trial programs — totaled roughly $5.2 million.
Gov. Ron DeSantis called for a ban on collaborations and gift-giving between Florida schools and China in September, when he also signed an executive order prohibiting state agencies from contracting with China-based companies for projects that could give them access to Floridians’ personal data.
That followed legislation the Governor signed in June 2021 requiring Florida colleges and universities to report donations or gifts worth $50,000 from the seven countries of concern. Under that law, companies seeking state contracts of $100,000 or more must now also disclose connections to those countries.
Other bills designed to limit hostile foreign access to Florida students, data and facilities is also close to passing, including a measure blocking countries of concern from buying land within 20 miles of critical infrastructure and legislation banning the installation and use of the Chinese-owned social media app, TikTok, on government and public school devices.