Florida Isolationism

Professors say legislation to limit their travel to "terrorist states" will hurt academic freedom, but Jeb Bush likes the idea.
May 25, 2006

He wanted to take on Fidel Castro.

He wanted to make a strong statement against the two most unpopular -isms around: terrorism and Communism.

And he wanted his constituents to be happy.

State Rep. David Rivera, a Republican who hails from a district composed largely of Cuban Americans, has spent the past several months garnering legislative support for a bill that he believed would do all those things. He not only ushered the bill through passage in the House, but he also persuaded Sen. Mike Haridopolos, also a Republican, to take similar actions in the Senate. Ultimately, the bill passed both chambers and made its way to Governor Jeb Bush’s desk on Tuesday. The governor -- against the advice of academic groups -- has said that he has every intention of signing the legislation.

The new legislation would, in part, prohibit “the use of state or nonstate funds made available to state universities to implement, organize, direct, coordinate, or administer activities related to or involving travel to a terrorist state." Countries deemed terrorist states by the U.S. include Cuba, Syria, Iran, North Korea and the Sudan. The law will go into effect on July 1.

Rivera said Tuesday that many Cuban Americans he’s spoken with are pleased, especially after recently seeing a professor and a counselor affiliated with Florida International University indicted on charges of spying for the Cuban government.

But, for several professors in the state, pleasure does not abound. Many have indicated that the end result of Rivera’s efforts will soon limit academic freedom and could pose a threat to U.S. national security.

“I think there’s likely going to be a chilling effect on academic research,” Lisandro Perez, associate professor of sociology and anthropology at Florida International University, said Wednesday. “It’s simply a mistake for researchers from this state to be shut off from these countries.” Perez has made several trips to Cuba as a result of institutional grants, studying the history of Cuban immigrants. He had planned to attend a conference in Cuba this winter, but is now uncertain if he will be able to without funding support for travel.

“This sends a signal that you can’t really engage in international studies in Florida,” said Damián Fernández, director of the Cuban Research Institute and a professor of international relations at Florida International. “I’m very concerned that Florida is going to fall behind other states. What real academic is going to come here under the impression that he or she can’t do research in Iran?”

Rivera said that no professor should have such concerns, if they are confident in their abilities to attract direct non-taxpayer funding for travel expenses. Still, many grants from non-state sources flow through universities, which would be barred under this legislation.
“Any professor who feels they cannot justify their research enough to receive private, direct funding is probably not worthy to teach in Florida,” said Rivera.

“That just doesn’t make any sense,” said Houman Sadri, a professor of political science at the University of Central Florida. “As a social scientist who has worked so hard not to get a label -- I have never taken private industry grants for fear of getting a label.” He has researched several foreign policy issues in Iran.

Echoing several academics' concerns, Sadri said that the legislation is “misguided in terms of American national interests in a world where we know little about our new regional (Cuba, North Korea, and Syria) and global (Iran) challengers.”

“This bill certainly makes a philosophical statement about American policy goals, but in reality it hinders our ability and means to gain inside information about our rivals in a world where information means power,” added Sadri. “How could we make prudent policies toward states that we have limited new information about?”

Sadri said that he would consider leaving Central Florida if the legislation ultimately hampered his ability to conduct further Iranian research.

Rivera said that he’s not all that concerned about academic opposition to the bill. “Legislators just don’t pay too much attention to what academics think,” he said. “I always welcome their opposition.”

The legislator added that as soon as opposition from academics mounted, his legislation instantly became more popular with average people in Florida.

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