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Status of FIU's largest international student program is unclear, as school stays silent

The current status of FIU's Marriott Tianjin China Program is unclear
FIU archived
FIU archived
The current status of FIU's Marriott Tianjin China Program is unclear amid a crackdown on how universities interact with the governments of China, Cuba, Venezuela, Russia, Iran, Syria and Russia. The campus was built and paid for by the Chinese government and the program operates as a partnership with the Tianjin University of Commerce. The website for the program has now been deleted.

In the midst of a crackdown on how Florida universities interact with China and other “countries of concern,” the current status of the Florida International University’s single largest international program is under question.

Months ago, an FIU official said in a State Board of Governors meeting that the university was working on “terminating” programs in China, including the Marriott Tianjin China Program.

That program — under FIU’s Chaplin School of Hospitality & Tourism Management — operates on a $100 million campus in the Chinese port city of Tianjin that was fully built and paid for by the Chinese government, with a capacity of up to 1,200 students. The program offers dual degrees in Hospitality Management with the Tianjin University of Commerce.

Over the course of several weeks, WLRN has sent dozens of emails and made dozens of phone calls asking the university’s communications department a straightforward question: Is the Tianjin campus is still operational and open?

The school has not responded.

Then, after weeks of asking, the school deleted the program’s website entirely — calling the status of the program into question. (The site was last crawled by the Internet Archive on Dec. 16, 2023.)

The fate of the students who participate in the program remains unclear.

READ MORE: FIU institutes a 'pause' in hiring Cuban, Chinese researchers as law goes into effect

The reason behind the uncertainty appears to be a slate of “foreign influence” laws passed over the last several years, closely scrutinizing and limiting interactions Florida’s public universities can have with “countries of concern.”

By state law, those nations include China, Cuba, Venezuela, Syria, Russia, Iran and North Korea.

The Florida Board of Governors (BOG), which controls the state university system, became critical of the Marriott Tianjin China Program in 2023, when the BOG’s Inspector General issued a report showing that FIU disclosed more gifts from “countries of concern” than any other university in the state, amounting to $2.6 million between 2021 and 2022.

Board member Jose Oliva, a former Republican House Speaker of Florida, asked an FIU representative to detail why that was the case.

“Those were not related to research, they were related to educational programs FIU has had historically in China,” responded Andres Gil, FIU’s dean of the University Graduate School in the June 2023 meeting. “That’s something the provost and the president have been working with the BOG — in terminating those programs.”

In addition to the Tianjin campus, FIU has maintained an official relationship with the Qingdao University in Qingdao, China, since 2014. That program also offers students dual degrees in the Spanish language. The status of that program is also uncertain.

As WLRN previously reported, Gil sent a memo to FIU deans, department chairs and graduate program directors in mid-December, stressing that because of the new state law on preventing foreign interference in the Florida university system, schools should immediately “pause” any recruiting efforts that involve individuals from the “countries of concern.”

The 2023 law functions as a blanket ban on hiring staff or researchers who live in the seven listed countries. The only way around it would be to obtain “waivers” to move forward with the hiring or onboarding process.

The underlying reason behind the slate of Florida’s foreign interference laws is to prevent intellectual property theft in higher education and to prevent potential spies from infiltrating the university system.

Hank Reitman, professor emeritus of history at California State University East Bay, said there are always “legitimate” concerns about those issues. But those concerns are already addressed by the federal government when it conducts background checks, issues visas to foreign nationals, and conducts other kinds of diplomacy, he said.

“The benefits of the exchanges are so great that it is essential that we be as narrow and as surgical as we can be,” Reitman, who also served as a co-chair of the Special Investigation on Political Interference and Academic Freedom in Florida, told WLRN. “It seems to me that adding a whole other level [of restrictions] at the state level is problematic.”

Former school president Mark Rosenberg worked to foster deeper ties between FIU and Chinese schools when he signed a deal creating the Marriott Tianjin China Program in 2006. At the time, FIU described the campus as the first of its kind to ever be launched.

Ever since a state law passed in 2022 requiring universities to report staff travel to “countries of concern”, only two staffers traveled to the campus, according to FIU records submitted to the Board of Trustees.

Former president Rosenberg used to visit the campus annually to attend graduation, blogging about it on the school website.

“They’re energetic, they’re grateful to FIU for the education that they received and they are an added dimension of who we are as a university that is globally engaged,” Rosenberg said in a 2010 video during his first visit to Tianjin, speaking of the first graduating class of mostly Chinese nationals.

“The energy of the Chinese people is going to ensure that China has a very strong position in job creation, in entrepreneurship, and in the world of work in the 21st century. So I think it’s important for our students to become familiar with that,” said Rosenberg.

Daniel Rivero is part of WLRN's new investigative reporting team. Before joining WLRN, he was an investigative reporter and producer on the television series "The Naked Truth," and a digital reporter for Fusion. He can be reached at drivero@wlrnnews.org
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