• Confessions of a Community College Dean

    In which a veteran of cultural studies seminars in the 1990s moves into academic administration and finds himself a married suburban father of two. Foucault, plus lawn care.


A Moment of Clarity

International students are a blessing, not a curse.

July 15, 2020

I read with relief that the current administration has withdrawn its rule that would have deported any international students who didn’t take on-site classes. Apparently, the hearing at the federal court in Boston took approximately eight minutes, which seems about right.

The logic behind the rule was that of a hostage situation. The administration threatened to harm innocent students unless universities gave it what it wanted, which, in this case, was to open fully and thereby endorse the narrative that everything is fine. Failing that, it could settle for rounding up foreigners, which it has shown an appetite to do. Happily, there are apparently still signs of life in the judicial system, and when facing certain defeat, the administration decided to drop it and move to the next thing.

Elite institutions, such as the ones in Cambridge that filed the suit, can make compelling arguments about the economic benefits of international students. A strong cohort of research universities attracts very talented people from around the world to the United States. In the second half of the 20th century, the international brain drain worked in our favor; we attracted extremely well-educated people from around the world. That’s an enormous economic advantage. By throwing up barriers to international students, we are effectively ceding that advantage to other countries that aren’t making the same mistake. The next Sergey Brin may set up shop in Toronto or Sydney rather than Boston or Seattle. By the time the loss is obvious, it’s nearly impossible to reverse.

In the community college world, many international students come from a different economic class. They’re trying to make their way in America. Some come from money, but many don’t; for many, community college is the only realistic (nonprofit) on-ramp to higher education. They’re trying to work their way up in what should be a familiar story. This is where some come to learn English as a second language, to pick up some employable skills and, often, to learn enough to help their children through school. They’re hard not to root for.

I don’t have any illusions that the administration has learned its lesson. The Wall Street Journal story noted that it may simply amend the policy to apply only to new students after a certain date. That would take some pressure off the ones who are already here -- though I’m sure they heard the implied value judgment loud and clear --- but it would still have the effect of shutting the doors. The stickiness of that strategy will be determined by the upcoming election.

I’m relieved for our students who now won’t face an awful choice. I’m relieved that we won’t have to twist ourselves into pretzels to allow people to stay in the country. I’m relieved that, at least for a moment, cooler heads prevailed.

So, admitting that this is either grading on a curve or defining deviancy down, here’s to a refreshing moment of clarity. May many more follow.


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