DeSantis supports bills that target ‘foreign influences’ in higher education

The legislation would call for greater oversight on research and travel and ban public entities from entering language and cultural exchange programs with seven countries.

Gov. Ron DeSantis expressed his support Monday for a series of bills being introduced in the state Legislature designed to “combat foreign influence and corporate espionage” in public institutions, particularly in higher education.

New measures would include random audits by state inspectors general; a requirement to report gifts of more than $50,000 from “any foreign government or foreign person”; stricter vetting of foreign applicants for research positions; and banning public entities from accepting donations for or participating in some cultural programs with China, Cuba, Russia, Iran, Syria, North Korea and Venezuela. They also would raise the severity of penalties for violations of these rules.

“It’s high time we tackle these issues and eliminate any tolerance for clandestine foreign influence in our schools,” DeSantis said. “Not only is this an issue of establishing barriers to foreign influence, but also a measure of ensuring sound fiscal stewardship to ensure tax dollars don’t end up in the hands of the likes of Maduro, Kim Jong Un or the Chinese Communist Party.”

State House Speaker Rep. Chris Sprowls, R–Palm Harbor, chaired the House Select Committee on the Integrity of Research Institutions, which was formed in 2019 following the resignation of top officials at Moffitt Cancer Center over allegations of ties to China that violated conflict-of interest rules.

Sprowls cited examples from the state’s inquiry, including four researchers at the University of Florida and a researcher and graduate assistant at the University of Central Florida who had inappropriate undisclosed ties to China.

“There are nations that spurn our freedom yet yearn for our innovation,” Sprowls said Monday. “They seek to corrupt our institutions, exploit our openness and steal our innovations.”

Sprowls said the bills would also prohibit public institutes from engaging in language and culture programs with certain countries, referring to programs such as Sister Cities and Confucius institutes, which were closed at four Florida universities after an effort led by Sen. Marco Rubio in 2019. He called these a way for countries to “get their foot in the door.”

“We found there are no limits to depths to which other countries, especially China, will go to steal our science and technology and use that technology to best us on the world stage,” Sprowls said.

A statement from the United Faculty of Florida, the union representing higher education faculty cross the state, responded to the press conference, saying the governor behaves as a “paranoid xenophobic.”

”We caution the governor to be careful not to condemn innocent Floridians of Chinese — or Cuban, North Korean, Iranian, Russian or Venezuelan — descent,” union president Karen Morian said in the statement.

In a statement Monday the University of Florida said it reaffirms its commitment to both addressing these issues and nondiscrimination.

“It is important to emphasize that even as we must remain vigilant, our rules focus on behaviors, not specific nations or peoples,” the statement said. “Our campus remains an open and welcoming place to students, faculty and staff from around the world and of every race and ethnicity.”

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