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Tuesday, May 21, 2024

UF professor sues Florida officials over law restricting international student employment

Two Florida International University students also suing

After losing his top pick for a postdoctoral assistantship, UF professor Zhengfei Guan is suing top state officials to block a law restricting international student employment at Florida public universities. 

Guan, an associate professor of agricultural economics, is hoping to prevent the enforcement of 2023 Senate Bill 846, which prohibits state public universities from “participating in partnerships or agreements with a college or university based in a foreign country of concern,” including Russia, Iran, North Korea, Cuba, Venezuela, Syria and China, unless authorized by the Board of Governors. 

The law could affect a third of UF’s graduate students. In 2022, 33.3% of graduate students were from countries of concern.

The law was one of three passed on the same day as part of Gov. Ron DeSantis’ effort to “stop CCP influence in our education system from grade school to grad school,” he said in a news release after the law passed in May 2023.

A DeSantis spokesperson did not respond for comment. 

UF and other public universities must comply with the restriction to avoid losing state performance funding. A statement issued by UF in February said the law “does not impact enrollment or scholarship.” But Guan’s lawsuit alleges the law’s hiring restrictions have significantly hindered his research progress and threatened his funding, future grant applications and academic freedom. 

Of the 18 international students who applied for the position of Guan’s assistant — five from countries of concern, according to court documents — a postdoctoral student from China emerged as the best candidate. 

However, the law caused a four-month delay in the hiring process, and the student accepted a competing offer outside of Florida. Guan was unable to comment in time for publication. 

Two Chinese doctoral students at Florida International University, Zhipeng Yin and Zhen Guo, are also taking legal action against the state. The students joined Guan in the lawsuit after their graduate teaching assistantships at FIU were deferred because of SB 846. 

They were told their positions would take months to be approved during which they would not receive benefits amounting to about $40,000 per academic year covered by the graduate teaching assistantship offers, according to court documents. 

Neither student responded for comment. 

The law sparked outrage among UF faculty and students as well. Nearly 400 UF faculty members have signed a petition protesting the law, and UF’s Student Senate passed a resolution in February condemning the bill and its effects on international graduate students. 

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Asif Islam, a former student senator who co-authored the resolution, said this law and others like it promote fear among students and will prevent UF from advancing as a premier academic institution. 

“SB 846 is blatantly discriminatory, and there is no reason to not stand against it,” he said. “UF’s ability to be a top tier research institution is largely because of our exceptional graduate researchers, many of which are from these ‘nations of concern.’” 

Anghelo Gangano, the graduate student senator and UF Graduate Assistants United officer who also co-authored the resolution, said many international graduate students in his department were worried about their futures in the U.S. if laws similar to SB 846 remained in effect.

“I can tell you right now thousands of students are feeling unwelcome at UF,” he said. “Multiple professors say they are having a harder time recruiting students to their laboratories because of this bill.”

This isn’t the first time DeSantis passed legislation targeting racial minorities in Florida educational institutions. A law that went into effect the same day as SB 846 limits funding of diversity, equity and inclusion programs. 

“All of these laws are creating a very homogenous environment here at UF, one where it’s becoming harder and harder to see other worldviews, or to appreciate new perspectives,” Gangano said.

In addition to DeSantis, the lawsuit lists Florida Department of Education Commissioner Manny Diaz Jr., Chancellor of the State University System Ray Rodrigues and members of the Board of Governors as defendants. 

A Board of Governors spokesperson did not respond for comment. 

The defense hasn’t filed their opposition to the preliminary injunction as of May 12, but Clay Zhu, one of Guan’s attorneys and co-founder of the Chinese American Legal Defense Alliance, expects them to argue the law is necessary under national security assertions.

The law treads on the federal government’s exclusive immigration power and is unconstitutional, Zhu said.

“The law singles out students from China and several other countries, and that is discrimination on its face,” he said. 

To Zhu, who said he came to the U.S. for the academic freedom it offered, the law seems regressive and detrimental to a country that benefits from global contributions. 

“Diversity is a fast way to attract talented people from all over the world,” he said. “The great part of the United States is that it’s a melting pot. It’s really sad. It’s really unfair and un-American.” 

Contact Grace McClung at Follow her on X @gracenmcclung

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Grace McClung

Grace McClung is a third-year journalism major and the graduate & professional school reporter for The Alligator. In her free time, Grace can be found running, going to the beach and writing poetry. 

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