Rallying against the ‘Countries of Concern’ bill

by Eva A. García Ferrés, Co-President of Graduate Assistants United

On Tuesday, March 26, members of the University of Florida along with community supporters and representatives from national organizations such as the ACLU,  joined to protest the passing and implementation of SB 846. The bill is more commonly known as the “Countries of Concern” bill, as it codifies entities (i.e., universities, organizations, applicants) from Cuba, Syria, Russia, China, Iran, Venezuela, and North Korea as potentially dangerous for national safety. 

Although it has been previously reported that SB 846 prohibits the acceptance of graduate assistants and faculty members from these so-called “countries of concern” (e.g., Heidt, February 2024, Nature), this is not fully true. The official writing of SB 846 does not prohibit the admission of applicants — but it does create a very important and hostile roadblock for prospective graduate assistants, postdocs, and faculty members. The bill requires an extra screening conducted by a Research Integrity Office. The screening is supposed to verify all attendance, employment, publications, and contributions listed in the application prior to any interview or offer of a position to the applicant. 

The first problem that arises with this is a logistic one — at least with respect to graduate assistants. Many graduate applications are due early to late December, and many interviews are offered and conducted around early spring. There are over 4,000 graduate assistants at University of Florida, approximately half of graduate assistants are international students, and of the international student population a substantial portion come from China and Iran. This means that for every application cycle, the Research Integrity Office would need to thoroughly vet and make risk assessments for all applicants within a very limited timeline. Does the Research Integrity Office have the capacity and ability to do so?

This leads me to a second point of concern — the lack of transparency regarding the Research Integrity Office and the guidelines they are to use to make such assessments. 

Graduate Assistants United has contacted Human Resources directly to ask about the guidelines offered to colleges and departments regarding hiring, but we have been stonewalled and ignored for months. How is “risk” calculated? Neither the bill itself nor the Board of Governors’ guidelines provide a definition of risk or a way to measure risk. It thus must fall upon the University and the Research Integrity Office to create the standard and apply it. 

But there is something more draconian and insidious about SB 846, and that is the implications of “failing” this screening. Those who fail (i.e., those who are deemed a risk, whatever that may be) will be reported to the FBI and any other law enforcement agency as determined by the Board of Governors. 

Moreover, looking at the Board of Governors’’ guidelines, we also see that it has reserved the right to make decisions about applicants and collaborations with entities from the seven countries based on their “value.” How is value determined? What makes the Board of Governors or the Research Integrity Office better suited for determining the value of international applicants and collaborations than the experts in the field? 

During the protest we heard from professors and graduate student leaders who have, in the short time since the passing of the bill, already seen its consequences. 

We know that applicants are being denied admission offers, that faculty cannot hire their top applicants, and that researchers cannot collaborate with prominent scholars in the field purely because of nationality. 

During the protest, we heard about the drastic drop of Iranian graduate students after the passing of SB 846 — how in previous years, each new cohort was comprised of 50 new students on average, and how 0 applicants currently residing in Iran made the cut this time. Call me skeptic, but something in me assumes preemptive and blanket rejection of applicants based on nationality. 

Another point of concern is the fact that these issues are not even implied in any small corner of UF’s website. Should the University not make it clear that for applicants of these countries there are more costs associated with merely applying for a job than there are benefits? And relatedly, by what right does UF pocket the money from these applications? 

Given my position as a graduate assistant and the co-president of GAU I have primarily focused on the implications of this bill on discriminatory hiring practices against graduate assistant applicants. However, the bill impacts all of us. 

If departments and faculty cannot hire their top applicants, then our research and teaching will suffer. If the University will not accept visiting professors and scholars from “countries of concern,” then the University will miss on key expertise, new perspectives, and important scholarly connections. 

Learning and innovation are the pillars of academia. They are pursued in collaboration and cannot flourish in echo chambers and monoculture settings.  

SB 846, the Board of Governors’ guidelines and the University’s compliance with this malicious and xenophobic bill conforms to a pattern that we are all now used to in Florida — the destruction of academic freedom. 

Decisions on who to hire, what to teach, and what to research have always been made by experts in the field. Here in Florida, that is no longer the case. 

We have seen the destruction of tenure, where tenured professors must get their tenure packages reviewed every 5 years, and the Board of Trustees can unilaterally and at any point call on anyone to review their package and fire them at will. 

We have seen the removal of Sociology as a core course and attempts at dismantling entire departments. 

We have seen the passing of bills like HB 7 that attempt to limit instructors’ teaching of systemic racism, sexism, ableism, heteronormativity and more. 

We have seen attacks on educator labor unions that fight for educators’ rights (which do include academic freedom and protections against discrimination and indiscriminate firings). 

SB 846 is part of a concerted effort to remodel academia into something that blindly abides by the far-right ideologists in power. This is not a problem at the University of Florida alone, nor is it a problem of Florida exclusively. We are a testing ground, and what happens here will happen elsewhere.

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