Florida governor pushes for oversight of colleges’ ties to foreign entities

Dive Brief:

  • Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis wants to require colleges in the state to disclose gifts from foreign entities that total $50,000 or more. 

  • The measure was one of several that DeSantis, a Republican, endorsed Monday in an effort to more closely scrutinize colleges’ ties to other nations. 

  • The Trump administration stepped up oversight of institutions’ foreign donations and other financial dealings, including launching 19 investigations into high-profile universities.

Dive Insight:

Under former President Donald Trump, the U.S. Department of Education began publicly accusing colleges of dodging their legal responsibility to report foreign gifts worth $250,000 or more in a year.

The Trump White House began to crack down harder following revelations in 2019 that some 70% of institutions that received more than $250,000 from Hanban, a contentious Chinese educational entity, failed to properly disclose funding. The administration maintained an especially hostile relationship with China.

In addition to the institutional probes, the Education Department crafted stringent new reporting mandates, much to the chagrin of higher education groups that sought clarity on colleges’ legal obligations. They said the agency ignored this outreach.

Asked if the investigations were ongoing, a department spokesperson told Higher Ed Dive last month that the new leadership team is reviewing “enforcement and litigation” initiated under the past administration to gauge whether it would “take a different posture.”

The Biden administration recently walked back a Trump-era rule that would have required colleges to disclose their ties to Confucius Institutes, which Hanban manages.

Meanwhile, the hostility toward foreign influence has extended to some states.

Florida lawmakers in 2019 announced the formation of a committee that would review international involvement in state-backed research. This followed a scandal at a state-funded research center over alleged conflicts of interest with China. Later, three University of Florida professors left, and another was fired, after it came to light they failed to disclose their ties to China. 

DeSantis, in a press conference Monday, contended that China has attempted to infiltrate the U.S. and steal intellectual property and that more surveillance was needed. DeSantis claimed there have been “numerous arrests” on college campuses in the last couple of years related to these crimes but did not provide specific examples. 

Federal prosecutors charged three researchers and a graduate student last year with visa fraud, accusing them of lying about their affiliation with the Chinese military. And a Harvard University scientist was arrested last January for allegedly lying about his participation in the Chinese Thousand Talents Program. Some in higher ed are concerned that the heightened focus on academics’ relationship with China is overreach and could constitute racial profiling, Inside Higher Ed reported.

DeSantis referenced specific legislation to combat foreign influence, but as of Tuesday afternoon, bill text has not been made public on state websites. A summary of the proposal, however, states that all higher ed institutions would need to disclose gifts of $50,000 or more to the governing board of Florida’s public college system or the state education department. 

Research institutions would need to track travel to foreign countries and document activities and locations visited there. And all public entities would be forbidden from entering into agreements or accepting donations to set up what the summary calls “propaganda missions” of China, Cuba, Iran, North Korea, Russia, Syria and Venezuela. It does not clarify what this would entail. 

The State University System of Florida did not respond to an emailed request for comment Tuesday.

Most of the oversight of these issues will likely remain at the federal level — and should, said Tom Harnisch, vice president for government relations at the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association. 

Colleges already must comply with federal reporting mandates, making the Florida proposal duplicative, Harnisch said. However, he said, the Republican party sees criticism of China as a “political winner.”.

“As GOP candidates line up for the 2024 race, we can expect to see more criticisms of China on and off campus,” Harnisch said.

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