The panic among faculty at the University of Florida began this month once word started to spread: Do not make offers yet to graduate students from seven “countries of concern.”
Among the seven was China, the largest source of international students at Florida, a major research university, particularly in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
The guidance stemmed from a new law that Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, a Republican, and state lawmakers said was designed to prevent the Chinese Communist Party from having influence at the state’s public institutions.
It remains unclear whether the law outright prohibits the University of Florida and other schools from hiring Chinese students. But the varying instructions given to professors in recent days have sowed uncertainty at the school, Florida’s flagship campus, just as admission committees are beginning to review graduate student applications for next year.
The measure, passed this spring, restricts public universities and colleges from “accepting grants from or participating in partnerships or agreements” with individuals or schools from seven countries: China, Russia, Iran, North Korea, Cuba, Venezuela and Syria.
Researchers are concerned that the law has already had the effect of scaring off talented Chinese students, who are also considering graduate schools and research opportunities in other states and countries. The law and its ramifications come as a growing number of Republican-led states have placed new prohibitions on Chinese nationals and entities amid growing U.S.-China tensions.
“These students are concerned that they will be discriminated against if they come to Florida,” said Qianqian Song, an assistant professor of bioinformatics at the University of Florida.
In recent days, she said, she has been inundated with questions from applicants after articles about the Florida law were posted to Chinese social media and major news websites. She said losing top recruits would be a huge blow to her research, which uses artificial intelligence algorithms to better understand diseases like cancer.
Last week, professors at the University of Florida sent a petition to leadership — including Ben Sasse, the university’s president, who previously served in the Senate as a Republican from Nebraska — calling for clearer guidelines on the hiring of international researchers.
At stake, the petition said, was nothing less than the school’s “standing as a top university.” By Thursday, more than 300 faculty members had signed it.
The original Florida bill was part of a package passed by the State Legislature that was aimed at combating the C.C.P.’s influence. According to the law, students can be hired on a case-by-case basis with approval from the Board of Governors that oversees state universities, but it remains unclear how such a process would work.
In a statement, a university spokesman said that the law had been passed unanimously by the Florida legislature and did not impact enrollment or scholarships.
“The university’s obligation is to comply with the restriction, and the administration has communicated the law clearly to deans and center directors,” said Steve Orlando, associate vice president for communications at the University of Florida. He said that the school was still working on policies and procedures to conform to the new law.
The law does not prohibit the University of Florida from admitting students from the seven countries, but doctoral students typically receive an accompanying offer of employment, usually in the form of a research or teaching assistant position.
The faculty petition stated that the university enrolls more than 1,000 students from the seven countries covered by the law each fall. In 2020, 1,100 students — 40 percent of the University of Florida’s total graduate student body — came from China, while 83 students were from Iran.
As they await further guidance, some University of Florida academic departments are weighing whether to interview candidates from the seven countries. At least one committee is trying to figure out how to rescind verbal offers that were already extended, said Meera Sitharam, a professor of computer science and president of the university’s faculty union.
Across the nation, two dozen states have proposed or enacted legislation that would restrict Chinese purchases of land, buildings and houses, citing concerns about national security threats. Tensions have been inflamed this year by the Chinese spy balloon that floated across the United States and by anti-China rhetoric from Republican presidential candidates.
In May, at the same time that Mr. DeSantis signed the research restriction, he approved one of the strictest versions of a land ownership ban, effectively prohibiting Chinese nationals from buying property within 10 miles of any military base or critical infrastructure, such as airports. Both laws took effect in July.
“Florida is taking action to stand against the United States’ greatest geopolitical threat — the Chinese Communist Party,” Mr. DeSantis said in a statement when he signed the laws, adding, “We are following through on our commitment to crack down on Communist China.”
In the Republican-led House, there has been some talk of reinstating the “China Initiative,” a Department of Justice program that was designed to target Chinese espionage by focusing on researchers working in the United States. The effort was scrapped last year amid criticism that it had chilled scientific research and contributed to racial profiling.
Civil rights advocates have said that such policies take a broad-brush approach to national security threats and lead to more discrimination against Chinese individuals and Asian Americans more broadly. Gisela Perez Kusakawa, executive director of the Asian American Scholar Forum, said the Florida law was another example of the “fear-mongering and scapegoating of Chinese American immigrants and students in the country.”
Richard Woodard, a professor of physics at the University of Florida, said he shared the concerns about the potential security risks outlined by Mr. DeSantis and other top state officials, and that he supported a more rigorous vetting of foreign researchers. But Mr. Woodard said that he did not want a blanket ban on students and scholars from China.
“Many of our best faculty are from China,” Mr. Woodard said, adding that “the Chinese are our best graduate students.”
“It won’t stop our research if there are no more of them,” he added, “but it will hurt us.”
Chenglong Li, a chaired professor of medicinal chemistry at the University of Florida, said that he was concerned that restricting international students from countries like China and Iran would cut off a pipeline of talent that has been crucial to America’s global scientific dominance.
Some might hold up Mr. Li’s experience as an example of that pipeline. He came to the United States more than 30 years ago after the Chinese government’s bloody crackdown on student demonstrators in Tiananmen Square in 1989.
Mr. Li’s research in the United States has since contributed to the development of targeted cancer treatments that could produce fewer side effects than those of earlier approaches.
“If you don’t want to deal with any Chinese government institutions or business institutions, that’s fine with me, I don’t care,” he said. “But most Chinese students who come here just want to stay in this country to pursue the American dream. They have nothing to do with the government.”