After an acquittal, more questions about the government’s investigation of academic espionage

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Charges are thrown out in a much-watched China Initiative case, and why veterans’ legislation could affect international recruiting.


A Decision, but More Questions

A federal judge has acquitted a former University of Tennessee professor accused of hiding his ties to China after the espionage case against him crumbled. 

Federal prosecutors had planned to retry Anming Hu on charges of wire fraud and making false statements after his first trial ended in a deadlocked jury. But the opinion by U.S. District Judge Thomas Varlan said that the government had failed to make the case that Hu had deliberately obscured his affiliations with a Chinese university when applying for grants from NASA. (Federal law prohibits NASA funds from going to projects in collaboration with China.)

“Even viewing all the evidence in the light most favorable to the government, no rational jury could conclude that defendant acted with a scheme to defraud NASA,” Varlan wrote. The judge added that “there was no evidence presented that defendant ever collaborated with a Chinese university in conducting his NASA-funded research, or used facilities, equipment, or funds from a Chinese university in the course of such research.”

Margaret K. Lewis, a Seton Hall law professor, said acquittal requires an exceptionally high bar, to be used only when the prosecution’s failure is clear:

Read more of Lewis’ analysis about why Varlan’s decision is such a stinging rebuke to the government’s case.

Although the judge’s ruling brings closure to the investigation and prosecution of Hu, there are still a number of big questions swirling around the China Initiative, the U.S. Department of Justice’s investigation of academic and economic espionage.

What’s the future of the China Initative? As I wrote last month, many observers expected the Trump-era effort to wind down with the new administration. It hasn’t. A Justice Department spokesman declined to answer Axios’ questions about the future of China Initiative in the wake of the Hu acquittal.

China experts have emphasized the bipartisan nature of suspicions of China, including Chinese students and scholars, both in Washington and among the public. “There is pressure to be tough on China,” Rory Truex, an assistant professor of politics and international affairs, told me.

What could change is the use of the courts to counter China. The dismissal of the Hu case amounted to a very public scolding, but in recent months, prosecutors have also dropped charges against a number of researchers and visiting scholars brought under the China Initiative. That doesn’t mean an end to the scrutiny of research ties with China, but it could take different forms. The White House science adviser has laid out principles for new research-security requirements for federally funded scientists.

What’s the role and responsibility of universities? Hu’s trial raised questions about the role of the higher-ed institutions. The University of Tennessee cooperated with the FBI and fired Hu based on its allegations. 

Not long ago, universities were encouraged to engage in international academic collaboration; now, they are supposed to police their researchers’ work abroad. Colleges have moved to put in place clearer reporting and training, but administrators I talk to acknowledge the need for greater accountability and transparency. It’s not entirely clear, though, what institutions ought to be tracking.

There are also fears that in their quest to comply, universities could swing too far in the opposite direction, limiting scientific cooperation and discovery. Colleges wary that they could be seen as having a “China problem” might pull back from ties with China rather than risk losing out on federal grants, Yasheng Huang, president of the Asian American Scholar Forum, said.

What’s the impact on Chinese and Chinese-American researchers and on U.S. science? The chill is already being felt by scientists of Chinese and Asian descent, who have comprised most of the China Initiative prosecutions. Researchers at the University of Arizona surveyed scientists about the impact of the investigations, and early findings suggest Chinese and Chinese-American researchers are more likely to feel targeted by the China Initiative and to say that it affects their work.

“It’s creating a very fearful sentiment among Chinese-American scientists,” Yiguang Ju, a professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at Princeton, told me. The impact could be especially great on early-career scientists, who don’t have the protections of tenure and who may decide the U.S. isn’t the right place to build their career — a potentially significant disruption to the talent pipeline.

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Bill Could Affect Use of Agents

On the face of it, legislation that updates Veterans Affairs education and training programs wouldn’t seem to have much impact on international-student recruitment.

But the recently passed THRIVE Act could, thanks to a little-noticed amendment. It places limits on “providing a commission, bonus, or other incentive payment based directly or indirectly on success in securing enrollments or financial aid to any persons or entities engaged in any student recruiting or admission activities or in making decisions regarding award of financial assistance.” In other words, it prohibits commission-based student recruiting.

Unlike the Higher Education Act, the new law doesn’t include a carve-out allowing incentive compensation for recruitment of “foreign students residing in foreign countries who are not eligible to receive federal assistance.”

Veterans education and training dollars are unlikely to go to international recruitment, of course. But because the THRIVE Act does not include an explicit exemption for international recruitment, there is concern that if incentive compensation is paid for the recruitment of any student, including those from abroad, it could jeopardize GI Bill funds to colleges.

Brian Whalen of the American International Recruitment Council told me that the problems with the bill point to the need for for a clear, consistent, and centralized national strategy for recruiting overseas students.

“International students are critical to the future of our educational institutions and to our country,” Whalen said. “We cannot afford to have conflicting federal policies that create confusion about how to recruit and enroll international students.” 

AIRC and other higher-ed organizations are working to get a correction to the new law that would include language consistent with the HEA and allow the continued use of commissioned agents in international recruitment.

A Global Campus Read

At West Virginia University, a campus read led to the the development of a virtual exchange course.

Earlier this summer, I posed a question about how — and if — these common reading assignments intersected with international education. At WVU, one sparked global exchange at a time when Covid-19 had grounded international study.

Vanessa Yerkovich, director of education abroad, has long served on the committee that picks the common assignment. The 2020 selection, The Girl Who Smiled Beads, an autobiography of a Rwandan refugee, seemed to have natural affinities with international education. So Yerkovich reached out to some of WVU’s traditional exchange partners around the globe, as well as the university’s honors college, and a joint course was born.

The mostly asynchronous online course built on the common selection with additional readings on immigrant culture, citizenship, passport privilege, and the nature of home. Students posted in discussion threads with their observations and analysis, and some, such as a group in Italy interning at a refugee camp, shared personal experiences.

In addition, each student was required to join a small synchronous group chat with classmates from institutions overseas. The chats were supposed to last 30 minutes, but most went on for more than three hours, Yerkovich said. 

Yerkovich said students were struck both by what they had in common with their international classmates and how little they knew about issues like travel restrictions or the legal rights of refugees.

WVU is using this year’s common read, A Line Becomes a River, about a border-patrol officer’s experience, as the basis for another virtual exchange. But L. Amber Brugnoli, WVU’s associate vice president for global affairs, said even assignments without overt international themes can lend themselves to global programming — the ever-popular Educated could lead to discussions about what education means around the world, she said.

Is your college innovating in international education? Contact me about your campus best practices, and I could highlight them in future issues of latitude(s).

Around the Globe

A draft House budget bill includes language providing a pathway to citizenship for young undocumented students brought to the U.S. as children. Meanwhile, Senate Democrats made the case to the parliamentarian that immigration provisions should be allowed in the bill.

College students are back in the classroom in Afghanistan for the first time since the Taliban takeover, but maie and female students are segregated. A Taliban minister has said women can attend university but not alongside men.

Higher-education aid programs in Afghanistan are at risk under the new government.

Lawmakers in Singapore will raise questions during a debate in Parliament over the dissolution of Yale-NUS College.

Two respected scientific journals have retracted articles that relied on DNA samples of Uyghurs, an oppressed minority group in western China.

Chinese students report lengthy delays in applying for UK visas.

Many foreign students are not able to return to campuses in China, Japan, and elsewhere in Asia.

Researchers and students in Australia could be trained to spot foreign interference, under proposed rules aimed at countering Chinese influence on campus.

Hindu nationalists have been attacking a conference on Hindutva, or the ideology of Hindu nationalism. 

“We actually take risks, and some of them don’t pan out.” Read this wide-ranging interview with Leon Botstein, president of Bard College, on international academic collaborations and more. 

For the latest updates between newsletters, follow me on Twitter or LinkedIn.

And finally…

Join me in conversation with Rajika Bhandari to celebrate the launch of her book, America Calling: A Foreign Student in a Country of Possibility. It’s a story of her own experience as an international student and a portrait of the challenges facing foreign students in the U.S., drawing on her insight as an international-education expert.

Following our chat, we’ll be joined by a stellar panel, including Jorge Gonzalez, president of Kalamazoo College; Fanta Aw, vice president of campus life and inclusive excellence at American University; and Stephanie Kim, assistant professor of the practice and faculty director of higher education administration at Georgetown University. 

The event, sponsored by the Presidents’ Alliance on Higher Education and Immigration, will be this Tuesday, September 14, at noon ET. Register here.

’Til next week —Karin

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