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Students Should Not Be Hostages

"Give us what we want, or these vulnerable students get it."

July 8, 2020

I was thrown by the new federal rule about international students and online classes because I was never trained as a hostage negotiator.

This is a hostage situation. It needs to be understood as such.

The rule, as announced, is relatively complicated. But to my reading, it boils down to a couple of key points, neither of which makes any sense on its own terms.

International students who are enrolled at institutions that are going entirely online this fall have to either switch to colleges that aren’t, or go back to their own countries. Those who don’t leave will be deported.

Students in ESL programs are not allowed to take any classes online at all.

Taken at face value, both parts are absurd. In the case of the first one, students would be forced to return to countries that may be in wildly different time zones, and that may or may not have reliable and/or uncensored internet. To what end? Many of these students have already signed leases for apartments for the next year. Given that the U.S. is one of the leading COVID hot spots in the world, some countries even restrict entry from the U.S., making deportation literally impossible.

As a “security” measure, it’s silly: a student who is perceived as a threat and who is enrolled at Hypothetical State U doesn’t suddenly become harmless by transferring to U of Hypothetical State. And to the extent that it’s about cybersecurity, a determined miscreant can hack American systems from as far away as, say, Russia. Deportation won’t stop that.

The ESL rule is also silly, and for similar reasons. Changing the modality of instruction doesn’t change the student. Strikingly, the ESL prohibition even covers non-ESL classes; a student taking any ESL can’t even take an online math class. If there’s a coherent argument for that based on the good of the student, I haven’t seen it.

No, these rules aren’t about what they’re about. They’re about leverage. The goal of these rules is to compel colleges and universities to open up, to feed the narrative that everything is somehow back to normal. To the extent that colleges don’t play along, the administration’s consolation prize is a chance to deport people. Having recently had its efforts to eliminate DACA overturned by the Supreme Court -- honestly, that one surprised me -- this is another shot at the goal of getting rid of populations it considers undesirable.

From a college’s point of view, it boils down to “give us what we want, or these vulnerable students get it.” It’s a hostage situation.

These rules are unconscionable. Students should not be used as hostages to force colleges to be complicit in accelerating the spread of a pandemic, either to enhance somebody’s perceived shot at re-election or to satisfy a lust for racism. It’s wrong. Colleges have to protect their students -- all of their students -- as best they can. In a pandemic, that’s hard enough already. Now we have to add “political predators” to the list of dangers.

International students and ESL students are, first and foremost, students. They deserve respect, which includes equitable treatment. I don’t think of that as a partisan position. It shouldn’t be. Historically, it wasn’t. Educators are not hostage negotiators. Let us educate. It’s why we’re here.

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Matt Reed

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