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Monday, May 20, 2024

UF faculty banned from recruiting Chinese, Iranian students under new Florida law

Law blocks state universities from making offers to students from seven ‘countries of concern’

After six years, 32-year-old Sara Hejazi had finally convinced her best friend to move from Iran to Florida to join Hejazi in studying medicine at UF.

But no sooner had her friend begun preparing her application than Hejazi, a UF medical intern, heard about Florida’s newest law cracking down on international graduate student recruitment. 

“I did my best for years and years to convince a best friend, confidante, sister-like friendship to come live close to me,” she said. “You cannot imagine how difficult it was for me to inform her that maybe this is not the best time to apply.”

The Florida law bans “partnerships,” including recruitment programs, between state universities and any non-U.S. citizen living in a foreign country of concern — including China, Iran, Venezuela, Russia, Cuba, Syria and North Korea. It was passed in May and went into effect Dec. 1.

The UF dean’s office and upper administration has interpreted the law to mean faculty cannot offer any assistantship or fellowship to students in these countries for the 2024-2025 academic year, according to an email sent to physics faculty by department chair Steve Hagen. 

Many students and faculty members have unanswered questions about the law, with upper administration still trying to decide how to implement its provisions.

It’s unclear whether UF will admit self-funded students, students who originate from the “countries of concern” but are already living in the U.S., and students who already received offers before the law went into effect but have not yet begun their studies.

The law does not apply to students who are already in the graduate program — they will continue to receive support as usual.

Most U.S. graduate school applications are due in late December or early January, meaning UF faculty are navigating the changed application process in the height of recruitment season. More than 300 faculty members have signed a petition to UF President Ben Sasse to protest the law. 

International graduate students from the seven “countries of concern” made up 33.3% of total UF graduate students and 28.7% of new UF graduate students in 2022. Of the seven countries, China had the largest number of UF graduate students at 1,165, followed by Iran at 82, while the remaining five combined had 32.

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“I am considering leaving the university as we speak”: Faculty speak out

Abdelsalam “Sumi” Helal, a UF engineering professor, knows the U.S. must stay competitive against foreign competition, he said. But the politicians who made this bill forgot the reason the U.S. became a global competitor in the first place: attracting the best brains from other countries, he said.

Instead of weakening “countries of concern,” this bill will give them an advantage, he said.

“What has been working beautifully for America is denying these countries the best brains and bringing them here,” he said. “The bill is saying, ‘No, no, no, keep them there.’”

Helal immigrated from Egypt as a doctorate student in 1982 because of the U.S.’s reputation as the science mecca of the world. But today, he feels the golden age of academia is coming to an end for Florida researchers, he said. 

“I am considering leaving the university as we speak,” he said. “We will not get the best students ever again if this bill continues.”

Rachel Houtz, who was hired as a UF assistant professor this year, is in the process of hiring her first post-doctoral student for her research in theoretical particle physics. 

Houtz hasn’t received any official guidance from the university about how the law will impact hiring, so she’s not going to let country of origin influence her decision for the time being, she said. Regardless, she worries about the law’s effect on UF’s reputation, she said.

“I was at a conference recently and other faculty from other universities and post-docs from other universities knew of the law and were concerned,” she said. “So it is something that is being talked about in our community.”

Students unsure about future

Chinese students in Florida are growing accustomed to anti-Chinese legislation. In May, a law restricting Chinese people from owning property in Florida was met with widespread controversy.

The crackdown on Chinese graduate student recruitment didn’t come as a surprise to Xinpei “Ryan” Yue. But the fifth-year UF Scripps Institute graduate student doesn’t think Chinese research students will be much affected by the new law blocking them from Florida public universities, he said.

“The United States has 50 states, it’s not just Florida,” he said. “They will go to other states, other countries.”

The real consequence will be for Florida universities, which will lose access to some of their most productive and hardworking students, he said.

While the total number of new UF international graduate students decreased by just 0.15% from 2021 to 2022, the number of new Chinese international students decreased by 33.4%.

Yue chose to study in Florida over offers from several other schools because of the weather, the beach and the reputation for biological research, he said. But palm trees won’t be enough to keep him here amidst the current administration, he said.

“I will definitely not stay in Florida after graduation,” he said. “I will definitely go to a state like California and New York.”

Zimu Tian’s first thought when he heard about the law on social media was that it was “another stupid law” designed to discriminate against people based on their country of birth. But after researching further, the UF chemistry research assistant says his main concern is the law’s vagueness.

The time administration takes working on interpreting its details slows down application procedures, which isn’t fair to graduate students, Tian said. He’s heard on social media that many Chinese applicants are avoiding applying to Florida universities altogether — public or private — because of confusion about how the law will be evaluated.

Even though the law doesn’t affect Tian directly right now, it also makes him worry for his own future, he said.

“It is possible that it’s just a start of stopping international collaboration between certain countries,” he said. “It makes me nervous.”

Confusion is spreading throughout all stages of the admission process, said Reza Esmaeeli, UF doctorate student and president of the Iranian Student Association.

Esmaeeli knows students in Iran who have accepted admission offers from UF but now must wait to find out what will happen to them — not knowing whether they should start applying to other places or whether their offer still stands, he said. 

Other Iranian students are already at UF but have husbands or wives still in Iran waiting for a visa, who now worry their way will be prevented, he said. 

“If families are going to stay separated because of this, it will be disastrous,” he said. 

As someone who comes from a hardline Islamic regime, he understands the U.S.’s desire to protect itself from adversaries like Iran. But banning all Iranian students will damage not just academia, but the post-graduate U.S. job market and worldwide scientific discovery, he said.

“It's not like if I sit here in Florida and draw a wall around myself and do some experiment and come to a conclusion, I can go to the wall and say, ‘Hey, I discovered something,”’ he said. “It should be accessible to everyone. It should be reproducible. That's how science works.”

Hejazi’s friend, a leading breast cancer researcher whose papers have received hundreds of citations, has begun applying to schools outside Florida, Hejazi said.

“She was like family to me, and I know how good she is in her experiments and her field,” Hejazi said. “She could do great work for the people who are suffering from this disease.”

UF’s obligation is to comply with the restriction, said UF Spokesperson Steve Orlando in a statement. The administration has communicated the law to deans and center directors, he said. UF has made no other public statement in response to the petition or regarding questions around the law’s interpretation.

Contact Zoey Thomas at Follow her on X @zoeythomas39.

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Zoey Thomas

Zoey Thomas is a second-year media production major and the university administration reporter for The Alligator. She previously wrote for the metro desk. Other than reporter, Zoey's titles include espresso connoisseur, long-distance runner and Wes Anderson appreciator. 

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