Pitt joins other universities in supporting global engagement


Chancellor Patrick Gallagher’s statement this week in support of global engagement is part of a growing trend of American university leaders speaking up for their foreign colleagues on campus.

The chancellor’s statement was unambiguous in its support: For the international members of our academic community, I will state the obvious: You belong here. We welcomed you to our campus in good faith and in compliance with all applicable laws and regulations, and we want you to have a productive and positive Pitt experience. We will continue to do our part to help you feel at home here — no matter where else you have called home.”

Universities around the country have been grappling with how to deal with growing suspicions in the U.S. government toward foreign nationals, particularly those from China, who are engaged with research projects at or with American colleges. The trade tensions between the U.S. and China have given rise to fears that Beijing is attempting to steal American technology.

Gallagher acknowledged these concerns in this week’s letter:

“Rising geopolitical tensions over economic competitiveness, trade and national security have begun to erode support for the robust global academic engagement that we have long enjoyed — and which is crucial for Pitt’s continued success.   

“National and economic security are based, to a large extent, on access to the latest knowledge and technology. This linkage places research-intensive universities like Pitt at the front lines of these issues. As a result — and for the first time since the end of the Cold War — university-based research and scholarship are facing calls to restrict global engagement. A rising tide of fear is fueling uncertainty, confusion and rapidly changing responses by our federal agencies, and the effects of government policies on research universities have been especially striking.

“Collaborations between scientists across national boundaries have been subject to unprecedented scrutiny. Established practices have been prohibited on technicalities. And researchers, particularly immigrants and visitors from China, have been the target of aggressive investigations and public sanctions.

“At Pitt, our mission demands better — and so does our University community.”

Pitt, Caltech and Johns Hopkins recently joined 12 other leading research schools — including Yale, Columbia and Stanford — to issue statements supporting immigrant and visiting Chinese scientists, according to the South China Daily Post, a Hong Kong-based, English-language newspaper.

Gallagher also had spoken about his concerns at the June Board of Trustees meeting:

“National security, trade and other types of national concerns are being directly used to challenge whether researchers are advantaging other countries and trade, whether discoveries that happen in our universities are being inappropriately taken abroad for economic advantage or national security advantage. I wanted to emphasize this because it’s so vitally important. As a public institution, we have a responsibility to uphold the law, and it’s not in my position to say whether or not these concerns are legitimate. We will follow and support the appropriate use and management of research activities on our campus. That’s something that we all embrace as researchers at a university that does cutting edge research. But I want to say something very clearly, we will not manage this by nationality, ethnicity, country of origin. We will manage this by behavior and people following the rules and doing the appropriate things ..."

Ronald Daniels, president of Johns Hopkins University, echoed Gallagher’s sentiments in a July 9 letter: “When any members of our community unfairly bear the burden of government mistrust simply by virtue of their place of birth, country of residence or ethnicity, we risk undermining the core tenets of our success as an institution and as a nation.”

Last week, Rob Rutenbar, senior vice chancellor for research, sent a letter to faculty highlighting a recent publication from the director of the National Institutes of Health that provides guidance and clarification for universities regarding the NIH definitions of Other Support, Foreign Component, and Significant Financial Interest, along with the expectations of disclosure. In response to the NIH statements, the Office of Research has set up a new Management of NIH Disclosures website to to help researchers better understand the NIH’s expectations regarding disclosure and to assist with compliance. Questions about disclosures also can be sent to NIHdisclosures@pitt.edu. 

In January, Allen DiPalma, director of Pitt’s Office of Export Controls Services, reported to the University Senate Research Committee that FBI officials would be visiting the Oakland campus to discuss this issue.

The Department of Defense and local FBI held a closed meeting in January for faculty involved in engineering, School of Computing and Information, the natural sciences and select areas in health sciences — all potential targets for Chinese espionage. They also held a similar meeting at Carnegie Mellon University, DiPalma said. University officials said the FBI also was on campus in May for a briefing.

Some of the critical technology that is being monitored includes nanorobotics, big data and other tech-driven STEM subjects, he said.

A report from NPR this month said since last year, FBI officials have visited at least 10 members of the Association of American Universities, of which Pitt is a part, to discuss issues with Chinese research. “Universities have been advised to monitor students and scholars associated with those entities on American campuses, according to three administrators briefed at separate institutions,” NPR reported. “FBI officials have also urged universities to review ongoing research involving Chinese individuals that could have defense applications, the administrators say.”

Gallagher said in his letter that these global tensions may require the university to issue new research guidelines as needed: “I urge everyone to pay close attention to new information, since this is one of the best tools we have for helping our community members navigate the current, rapidly shifting legal and regulatory environment.

“And, when new guidance does arrive, we promise to assist any affected University community member and to do so without fear, prejudice or invidious distinctions based on an individual’s nationality, ethnicity, race or country of origin.”

Susan Jones is editor of the University Times. Reach her at suejones@pitt.edu or 412-648-4294.