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I Spy, U. Spy?

The strange case of higher education espionage.
Xiaoxing Xi. (Photo: Temple University)

Xiaoxing Xi. (Photo: Temple University)

Temple University’s physics department chair, Xiaoxing Xi, may be moonlighting as a spy. The superconductivity expert was charged last week with scheming to trade information about United States defense technologies to China. Federal prosecutors allege that the professor, a naturalized U.S. citizen, was attempting to trade information on an undisclosed (but we can only assume, very, very important) device for “prestigious appointments in China,” reports.

As strange as this story sounds, academic spies are not all that uncommon. The former Federal Bureau of Investigation assistant director for counterintelligence, Frank Figliuzzi, told Bloomberg in 2012 that his one-time employer has "intelligence and cases indicating that U.S. universities are indeed a target of foreign intelligence services."

According to the FBI’s Counterintelligence Strategic Partnership Unit, the open environment of college campuses in the states make the schools (and the professors, students, and administrators who populate them) prime targets for “foreign adversaries” in search of intellectual property that can further their own economic and military aims. Academic solicitation—requests for papers, to study or consult with faculty members, or admission to academic institutions—has become the most common “method of operation” for foreign attempts at collecting information, according to a 2014 report from the Defense Security Service.

And the FBI's stress doesn't just stop at America's borders. They also have to worry about U.S. citizens overseas, such as students studying abroad, accidentally becoming spies. Because that really happened once. In response, the FBI made a 30-minute, Lifetime-esque movie called Game of Pawns about it, so that it will never happen again.

As for Xi, the physics professor has been indefinitely suspended as department chair while the investigation plays out. Aside from the whole spying thing, Temple has more pressing concerns: According to University Provost Hai-Lung Dai, “The concern is this certainly will affect his ability to do administrative duties.”