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A quote over an orange picture of a building. The quote reads "This is a hospitality program. What are they going to steal, a napkin?"

Florida International’s closures in China include a Spanish program and a campus for hospitality and tourism, not usually areas of concern for foreign influence and espionage in higher ed.

Photo illustration by Justin Morrison/Inside Higher Ed | Cillij/Wikimedia Commons

Florida International University is ending several partnerships with Chinese universities to comply with a state law that limits public institutions’ relationships with “countries of concern.”

The decision affects a dual-degree Spanish language program that FIU runs jointly with Qingdao University, as well as engineering exchange programs with seven Chinese institutions. But perhaps most surprisingly, FIU is terminating its largest and most successful international initiative: a dual-degree hospitality program run jointly by the university’s Chaplin School of Hospitality and Tourism Management and the Tianjin University of Commerce.

The move comes in the wake of scrutiny by Florida’s politically appointed Board of Governors, which oversees all public higher education institutions in the state, over millions of dollars in gifts FIU has reported from Chinese institutions. At a board meeting last June, a former Republican representative and an appointee of Governor Ron DeSantis, Jose Oliva, grilled graduate school dean Andrew Gil over the $3.2 million FIU received from China during the 2021–22 academic year. Gil said the money was connected to educational programs in China and that at the time university leaders were “working on terminating those programs.”

Maydel Santana, FIU’s associate vice president for media relations, wrote in an email that the programs had been slated for termination since last spring. She cited two factors: the board’s decision last year to revise regulations for certain programs and a Florida law ramping up oversight of university partnerships and exchanges with seven countries of concern, which was signed in 2021 and expanded last year to cover joint ventures as well as hiring.

“In the spring of 2023, the Florida Board of Governors revised its Self-Supporting and Market Tuition Programs regulation, which precipitated the closing of the FIU hospitality program in China, as well as two other smaller programs,” Santana wrote. “It is important to note that given the foreign countries of concern law, which we anticipated would go into effect by the end of 2023, we also would have been required to revisit the programs.”

Santana did not respond to multiple requests for clarification on the regulatory revisions and why they necessitated program closures, or on the potential connections between those revisions and the foreign influence law.

She added that all FIU students enrolled in the terminated programs have been able to complete their degrees or make accommodations to finish elsewhere. Underclassmen at Tianjin were given the option to change majors and stay or transfer to FIU’s Miami campus.

To comply with the new law, FIU also paused recruitment of researchers from the listed countries in December, following on the heels of several other public universities in the state.

The program closures are part of a broader chilling of Chinese-American educational partnerships, as concerns over academic freedom in China multiply and bilateral political relations grow increasingly tense.

William Brustein, a longtime international education administrator, compared the current environment around Chinese partnerships to the McCarthy era, wherein political victories in a newly crystallizing cold war are worth more than educational opportunities or economic gains.

“One shouldn’t pull the curtain on a program without due diligence and transparency, and I don’t see that being done here,” he said. “It sends a message that particularly at this time is dangerous, which is that we have to look at China as not just a competitor but as an enemy.”

Influence Peddling or Good Business?

At the Florida Board of Governors meeting last June, members said they targeted FIU because of its outsize international involvement compared to other state colleges.

After all, “‘International’ is in its name,” said Kyle Long, founder and director of Global American Higher Education, a coalition of researchers studying American institutions abroad.

According to a foreign gift investigation conducted by the Board of Governors last year and shared with Inside Higher Ed, FIU received the most foreign gifts of any state institution: 16, for a total of $27 million, in the 2021–22 academic year. (The institutions with the next highest number of foreign gifts, the University of Florida and Florida State, received four apiece.)

The report also noted that FIU had more foreign gift disclosures from countries of concern than any other state university. According to the Department of Education’s foreign gift reporting database, of the seven gifts from Chinese institutions to Florida universities in 2021–22, five went to FIU, bringing in just under $3.3 million. Most of those were related to “collaborative bachelor’s” programs, especially a now-terminated engineering exchange program with Hebei University of Technology.

Long said Florida lawmakers and Republican Board of Governors members are “making a mountain out of a molehill” over the $3 million FIU received in gifts from China, thereby sacrificing a profitable venture for opaquely ideological reasons.

“These programs are key ways that institutions like FIU can bring in foreign students. But the environment now is inhospitable to bringing Chinese students to Florida, which is terribly stupid and antibusiness,” he said. “They’re throwing the baby out with the bathwater. The business argument should transcend the culture war stuff.”

Long said the criticism of these partnerships over fear of foreign influence shows a “fundamental misunderstanding of higher ed philanthropy” and reveals an ambitious political agenda that, once again, takes aim at Florida’s public higher ed institutions.

“States are outflanking the federal government on this issue, essentially conducting their own foreign policy through higher ed,” he said.

Brustein said Florida’s aggressive oversight is a harbinger of lawmakers’ further clampdowns on Chinese partnerships, especially as the U.S. enters a fraught election year in which higher education is poised to play a significant role.

“DeSantis is trying to score political points here, and other states, I’m sure, are going to start moving in this direction soon,” he said.

‘Throwing the Baby Out With the Bathwater’

The closure of FIU’s Marriott Tianjin China hospitality program, in particular, has raised eyebrows because of both the program’s seemingly benign nature and its long-running success. The hospitality program was established in 2006 and is one of the world’s oldest Sino-American university partnerships, housed in a custom-built $100 million campus—fully funded by the Chinese government—in Tianjin, a northern port city just south of Beijing.

FIU has operated an effective branch campus in Tianjin for nearly two decades, and it has been one of the largest and most popular of the university’s many international exchange initiatives, with a 1,200-student capacity. Chinese students at TUC, the partner institution, can choose to transfer to FIU’s program after their first two years if they’re interested in hospitality, adding a substantial tuition bump to the university with little direct investment.

FIU Tianjin’s creation was a product of the budding, financially fruitful partnership between American and Chinese higher education entities that flowered in the mid-2000s; the program’s abrupt termination is the most recent sign of that partnership’s souring under growing political pressures.

Brustein said the FIU Tianjin closure is especially concerning, because unlike other partnerships that invoke political scrutiny, it doesn’t entail sensitive military and commercial research in areas like semiconductor development.

“It’s pretty ridiculous. This is a hospitality program. What are they going to steal, a napkin? A new way of putting down cutlery?” he said. “Yes, there are legitimate concerns around academic freedom at some programs in China, but it really depends on the subject matter. These bureaucrats are using a sledgehammer rather than a scalpel.”

Long said he’s surprised there’s been almost no serious pushback from officials at FIU or other Florida colleges distancing themselves from China—including the University of Florida, where faculty have reportedly been asked to pause recruitment of Chinese and Iranian graduate students this winter.

Ten years ago, college presidents guarded their Chinese partnerships ferociously and touted them often. Now, especially in red states where higher ed has become a political focus, Long said there seems to be neither the will nor the political capital to defend internationalization.

“I’d like to see a bit more backbone from leaders in this arena,” Long said. “That said, Florida college presidents are in a lose-lose situation. If they push back on this law, they risk pissing off those who hold the purse strings at a time when they have a lot of tension with lawmakers in other areas.”

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