Big Surprise!

The impending decline in international enthusiasm for the U.S. as a destination for study and research is not only a result of the change in the political winds, but also the failure of universities to take a more active role in the public arena. 

July 9, 2017

I confess to a surge of cynicism reading Elizabeth Redden’s article, Shaky International Yields. What a surprise! The impending decline in international enthusiasm for the US as a destination for study and research is not only a result of the change in the political winds since last November, but also the failure of US universities to take a more active role in the public arena. US universities along with professional organizations such as NAFSA:  Association of International Educators and the International Institute of Education (IIE) have collectively failed to make the case for continuing to welcome international talent to our institutions and insuring that international mobility and collaboration remain free of political impediments.

Sadly we have a President who has fueled US paranoia about Muslims and who has made every effort to make international students feel unwelcome with his rabid “America first” rhetoric and insistence on “extreme vetting”. It should not be a surprise that students like those from Saudi Arabia, funded with generous scholarships by their government, might hesitate to enroll here. What a contrast with our neighbor to the north where the Prime Minister personally welcomes a planeload of Syrian refugees when they touch down on Canadian soil for the first time, a country that also extends work permission to international talent graduated from Canadian universities, while in we reduce the number of H1-Bs awarded in the US.

Add to this the explicit and implicit racist messages coming from the White House, the scourge of violence against people of color and immigrants and it is no wonder that international students would rethink the US as their destination of choice. The heartbreaking story of the senseless murder of Srinivas Kuchibhotla while innocently chatting with a friend in a Kansas bar certainly explains why attendance at US college fairs in India has dropped precipitously.

Most of the US has taken for granted the extraordinary benefits of being the primary destination of internationally mobile students for the past several decades. Universities have benefited at multiple levels.  International students have helped meet enrollment targets at many institutions that might otherwise have faced enrollment shortfalls and generally paid full tuition without requiring subsidies from institutional budgets. (Not to mention diversity these students add to the campuses where they enroll and that enriches the undergraduate experience of US students).  Perhaps most importantly, international students have proven to be a vital source of graduate students and research assistants who fill places in scientific and technical fields that would otherwise remain vacant as these advanced degrees have not proven sufficiently attractive to US citizens in recent years. The international talent enrolled in STEM fields has made important contributions to knowledge creation and technical innovation critical to the economic health of the United States.

It is much too easy to blame all of this on Donald Trump, tempting as it may be to do so. For decades, US universities have done little to disseminate information that might have built public and political support—on campus and off—for international enrollment at our institutions. We have certainly not made our case to an increasingly misinformed and fearful public. Efforts have focused almost exclusively on recruiting international students as sources of revenue or low-cost support for research activity. Institutions have pursued short-term self-interest and made little effort to build a base of support that might have averted the looming crisis. Yet despite all so much positive impact on our campuses, international students and scholars have had no political lobby to protect and celebrate their contributions.

Most citizens of the US have no idea how many billions of dollars international students distribute the local economies where they enroll—off campus as well as on. Few US citizens know how many start-ups have been created by foreign graduates of US universities or how many thousands of jobs they have created. While we take pride in our record of racking up Nobel prizes, only a limited group of scholars recognizes how many of these Nobel Laureates were born elsewhere.

Universities have squandered the opportunity for political influence that we might have had as a collective community of institutions and individuals. If only we’d been willing to devote time and resources to protecting the conditions that have made the continued flow of talent and revenue towards our institutions possible. At the very least, colleges and universities might have communicated the value of international talent more effectively on campus and encouraged their faculty, staff, and students to be aware of political initiatives that would undermine unhindered international activity. It is only very recently that US universities are moving “internationalization” to the highest level of institutional strategy and even then, the focus tends to be inward and on institutional goals rather than dedicating effort or budget to influencing the external environment. Likewise NAFSA and IIE should have mobilized their combined memberships of thousands to make clear to their Congressional representatives what is at stake.

We are now at risk of ceding the benefits we have enjoyed for many years to more welcoming countries. It pains me to admit that now Canada and Australia are probably more deserving of the riches we have taken for granted here for too long. 


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