University under pressure to rehire scientist acquitted of hiding China links

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Anming Hu enters the United States Courthouse in downtown Knoxville, Tennessee, US.

Anming Hu outside the courthouse in Knoxville, Tennessee, where his trial was held in June.Credit: Caitie McMekin/USA Today Network

Faculty leaders at the University of Tennessee (UT), Knoxville, are mounting a campaign to rehire a nanotechnology researcher who lost his job after the US government accused him of hiding his links to a university in China.

Anming Hu, formerly a tenured professor, was acquitted of the charges by a judge on 9 September.

The case is part of US efforts, escalated under former president Donald Trump, to find spies working at US universities and prevent them from sharing intellectual property with China. Hu was the first scientist in the United States whose case went to trial because of claims related to foreign ties in the past few years. His situation illustrates the far-reaching consequences for individual researchers who get caught up in the US crackdown, advocates say.

At UT Knoxville, Hu’s backers are calling for the university to return him to his position with back pay. The university suspended him after the US Department of Justice accused him of concealing an appointment with the Beijing University of Technology while receiving funding from NASA. His employment at the university was later terminated.

University officials have been tight-lipped on the next steps in Hu’s case, which has frustrated faculty members. The case has also prompted a broader discussion about how the university responds to requests from law enforcement about faculty scientists, and ignited a call for transparency overall.

“The faculty are paying a lot more attention, and the faculty are demanding to know why he’s not being reinstated,” says Mary McAlpin, a French studies specialist at UT Knoxville who has argued for Hu’s rehiring in her role as president of the university chapter of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), an organization for faculty members at US colleges. “We want to make sure this stays in the public eye until he is reinstated.”

Nature contacted Hu’s lawyer, Phil Lomonaco, but Hu declined to comment.

UT Knoxville provost John Zomchick also declined to comment on Hu’s possible return, saying that he was not able to speak about personnel matters. “We’re communicating with his attorney, and we’re following the processes we would follow in any case,” he says.

Foreign ties

Over the past few years US science agencies have increased their scrutiny of scientists who receive US research money but who also have foreign ties or get financial support from other countries. Science agencies require that foreign money or positions, such as professorships, be disclosed on grant applications. Also, NASA is prohibited from funding people with certain collaborations in China. However, university groups have said that existing disclosure rules supplied by US agencies are difficult to interpret.

This focus on foreign ties intensified after the Trump administration began its ‘China Initiative’ in 2018, with the aim of rooting out trade theft by foreign spies at US companies and enterprises. Since then, the US Department of Justice has accused a number of researchers of concealing from the US government foreign links or sources of foreign funding, most often related to China.

Hu was arrested in 2020 and accused of wire fraud and making false statements to the government. After that, UT Knoxville suspended him without pay. Hu is a Canadian citizen; following his suspension, his US work authorization expired, so the university terminated his position.

This sequence of events has been one point of concern among faculty members. Another is that the faculty handbook says professors who are indicted on felony charges “may” be suspended. So they are questioning whether the university needs to pursue that route before a case goes to trial. “There is no presumption of innocence,” says Lou Gross, president of the faculty senate.

“Personally, I’m kind of appalled with the way a colleague was treated,” says Gross. Also, according to the faculty handbook, the university administration must consult the faculty senate president before suspending a faculty member. Gross says this consultation did not take place in Hu’s case. Zomchick disagrees, and says the university’s then-provost did call the faculty senate president about the case. “That’s a judgment call about whether you consider something information or consultation,” he says.

Rallying support

Hu’s trial began in June, and ended in a mistrial days later, after the jury could not reach a verdict. Lomonaco had argued that the rules regarding NASA funding and affiliations with China universities are confusing, and that the university had not adequately informed Hu of the rules. A judge acquitted Hu of all charges earlier this month.

Soon after the acquittal, AAUP members wrote to the UT Knoxville provost, asking that Hu be rehired with back pay covering the period of his suspension and termination, as well as additional payment for “damages done to his financial circumstances and mental wellbeing” over the time he was gone. McAlpin says they have not received a response.

One sticking point seems to be Hu’s immigration status. The university has said Hu could be rehired if he got authorization to work in the United States in the next year. But foreign citizens typically require the support of their employers to apply for a work visa, and it is not clear if the university is offering that support. Without it, the process would be at a stalemate, one that the faculty senate and AAUP are pushing to resolve.

The faculty senate is also broadly asking for clarity on terms under which the university shares employee records with law enforcement, including whether employees are informed if their information is shared. “We don’t know what the policy is for release of information,” says Gross.

Zomchick did not provide a timeline for next steps on the case but said that officials are being “very deliberate” in their approach. “We want to make sure that everyone — every single member of our community — gets a due process in justice,” he says.

Such encounters with law enforcement take a massive personal and professional toll, says Xi Xiaoxing, a physicist at Temple University in Philadelphia who was placed on administrative leave in 2015, after the US government accused him of illegally sharing information with scientists in China. “To be charged by the federal government, that’s a very, very difficult situation,” he says. “The pressure people are under, emotionally, financially, or professionally — every aspect is very difficult.” The government dropped the charges against Xi a few months later, after Xi’s lawyers argued that information he shared was public and done as part of routine scientific collaborations. His period of leave ended and he returned to his job.

Commenting on the situation at UT Knoxville, Xi says, “I’m very happy to say that people are pushing back at the faculty-member level, and I think that’s important.”

Civil rights groups and lawmakers have criticized the US government’s investigations into university researchers’ foreign ties, saying the overwhelming focus on researchers of Asian, and particularly Chinese, descent amounts to racial profiling. Steven Pei, an electrical engineer at the University of Houston in Texas and co-organizer of the volunteer group APA Justice Task Force, which has been advocating for researchers of Asian descent, says that after high-profile cases such as Hu’s, faculty groups are organizing to support colleagues facing scrutiny. “All the different campuses are mobilizing now,” he says. “They are really upset.”



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