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Commentary

Foreign Students Need Not Apply

August 27, 2003|Catharine Stimpson | Catharine Stimpson is dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Science at New York University.

The Sept. 11 attacks rightly marshaled America against terrorism. Unfortunately, however, the government's zeal has created one of the most serious conflicts between security and freedom in our nation's history -- and its effects will be evident on college campuses, among other places, this fall.

As a New York University educator, I am unusually anxious about the start of this academic year. Many of my international students -- who constitute about one-third of my student body at the Graduate School of Arts and Science -- still do not know whether they are going to be able to enroll next month. The reason for this uncertainty is the current policies toward international students.

There are about 600,000 international students in the United States; in fall 2002, my university had 4,600 enrolled. The young men and women seeking an education at top-tier schools do not whimsically decide to come to American shores; they want to be chemists, mathematicians, economists, historians, literary and film scholars, and they want to learn from the best in the world. As with any other highly competitive graduate school, we strenuously vet their applications.

Once admitted, new students must apply for a visa. Fair enough. But in May 2003, the State Department told all U.S. embassies and consular offices that nearly all visa applicants were to have in-person interviews in their home countries. Overextended embassies and consulates were given no new resources to perform this task. The State Department did respond to requests from the higher education community to give priority in scheduling interviews to foreign students over others applying for visas. In some cases, though, these interviews are scheduled so late as to make it impossible for students to enroll, even if granted a visa.

Student reports about these interviews stress their brevity, and some of our most talented applicants have been rejected after five minutes or less of questioning, with no indication as to why. In many cases, potential interviewers have a list of terms to identify students whose academic work might involve "sensitive" or "potentially dangerous" technologies. Words like biochemistry, robotics, biomedical engineering, artificial intelligence and neural networks might send a student's file to Washington for a Security Advisory Review, ensuring at the very least a substantial delay.

Clogging up the bureaucracy even more has been a computerized, centralized database instituted after 9/11 -- the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System, or SEVIS -- maintained by a division of the Department of Homeland Security. All students already here must have up-to-date information about their location and academic standing on SEVIS or risk being deported. Ironically, there is not yet a comparable tracking of tourists, although a tourist is theoretically as capable of terrorism as a master's-degree candidate.

In a few years, SEVIS may be a paragon of high-tech efficiency, but it is now notorious for its inefficiencies and mistakes. These flaws would be laughable if a student's education were not on the line. Universities are supposed to be part of a three-part tracking system that begins with the State Department and the border inspectors entering information that is confirmed when students arrive at their designated schools. In many cases, we're finding none of this information in the system, forcing our administrators to start from scratch or engage in "policing" without the facts, let alone the expertise.

State Department officials have also seen fit to question our admissions processes, informing one student that she wasn't smart enough to attend NYU and another that he wasn't qualified for the program he had been admitted to.

We believe that as a result of such tactics, visas for more of our students have been denied this year than ever before. Our international students are at the heart of our nation's scientific and technological future. Forty-one percent of engineering graduates are international, as are 39% of the mathematics and computer science graduates. Two-thirds of our international science- and engineering-degree recipients stay in the United States, where they make educational, economic and intellectual contributions. One-third of all U.S. Nobel laureates were not born here.

The creation of knowledge happens most successfully in an atmosphere of intellectual freedom. Yet, once they are in a U.S. institution, international students may come under special scrutiny -- simply because they are foreign.

Post-9/11 government legislation has hampered some of the freedoms we as Americans have sought to protect. In higher education specifically, government contracts now impose more restrictions on the participation of noncitizens. MIT, no stranger to government-funded research, recently declined a $404,000 study grant because it would have restricted international student involvement.

The frustrations of international students are taking their toll. Canadian and European universities are attracting students who once would have come to the U.S. I recognize the heightened role that educational institutions must play in national security. But bad visa policies make it hard for international students to study here. This harms U.S. higher education, the creation and transmission of knowledge and, ultimately, society -- exactly what the terrorists sought to do in the first place.

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