Revised travel ban promises to reduce disruption to current students and scholars from affected countries, but concerns remain for new international enrollments and American higher ed’s continued ability to attract top talent from abroad.
As I type this, my eyes flicker over my smartphone, anxiously looking for a text to show that a scholar we once helped has been allowed back into the United States after brief trip abroad. He has lived and worked here 10 years and raised a beautiful family. His three children are American citizens. His crime back home in Syria was peacefully fighting for democracy and human rights, work he has continued in this country.
His alleged offense here? He comes from there.
Airports around the country and around the world have been unnecessarily thrown into chaos and confusion in recent weeks as a result of an executive order by the Trump administration to bar travel to the United States from nationals of seven predominantly Muslim nations. Immediately after the order, senior citizens, solo travelers and parents with children were all delayed, turned back and, in some cases, detained -- but not because of who they are or what they have done. On the contrary -- it was because of where they come from and how they might pray.
Although partial clarifications from the administration regarding green card holders and some dual nationals, and subsequent court orders, have at least temporarily mitigated some of the order’s negative impacts, grave and lasting damage has already been done. The “gotcha” imposition of the blanket bans on entry, and even on re-entry for those who were here and showed themselves to pose no threat, expose the administration’s predisposition to paint with a broad brush. As a result, even if the legal challenges ultimately reverse the order in its entirety, all immigrants, refugees and visa holders will be forced to live with uncertainty and doubt about their future prospects in the United States.
Among those most affected have been many scholars and students at American colleges and universities, including some we at Scholars at Risk, an international network of higher education institutions and individuals, have worked to protect: scholars and student leaders who risk everything to stand up to authoritarian states and militant radicals alike.
Stand up for what? For values essential to higher education, values America has traditionally stood for: freedom of thought, inquiry, expression and belief. Scholars at Risk offers them a lifeboat so they can keep fighting for those values in a safe place. This rash executive order threatens to sink that lifeboat.
It imposes hardship on the people caught outside, even while it denies support to those fighting for freedom and democracy in their home countries, often against the very same forces intent on harming the United States.
It also imposes huge costs in time and resources on host campuses, whose staff members and leadership are already going to heroic efforts to help stranded scholars and students get back or otherwise to resume their studies, teaching and research.
It means campuses and industry alike can expect even more extensive delays in processing study, work and visitor visas, and possibly higher rates of denials of requests. The latter not because applicants have done anything inappropriate, but because the executive order suggests that instead of showing the valuable, creative work that they want to do during their time in the United States, scholars and students must somehow prove that they don’t want to do unspecified harmful acts imagined by a fear-infused administration.
Meanwhile those currently in this country will be advised not to leave here unless absolutely necessary. And this is not just for people from the seven countries flagged in the executive order. They are just the first wave, as administration officials have already suggested publicly that additional countries may be added. Already scholars and students in America are canceling field research, exchanges and conference participations, making studying and working here less attractive. But equally it means straining families and agonizing decisions to skip weddings, births, visits to aging parents and funerals. Arbitrarily forcing such decisions through blanket, rash actions -- in the administration’s terms, “ripping off the Band-Aid” -- does not strengthen America. It makes us weaker.
Inevitably the executive order will drive foreign scholars and students who are considering study or work abroad to think more favorably about other, more welcoming places to make their careers, including Great Britain, Europe and even China and the Gulf nations. Already there is talk of scholars abroad skipping annual conferences in the United States and moving major academic projects elsewhere. This risks making American higher education and education-dependent industries less competitive, and that may ultimately cost our nation jobs, let alone incalculable costs to its honor and prestige. Driving foreign scholars and students away isn’t smart and won’t make us safer. Real security comes not from such shortsightedness but from seeing over the horizon.
What should American colleges and universities do now?
Keep doing what they do best. Already many institutions have publicly communicated their commitment to core higher education values and their support for students and scholars directly impacted by the executive order -- those caught outside and those inside the United States alike. They should be commended for this, and for their behind-the-scenes efforts to mitigate the harms and cruelties of the executive order. (What if alumni who are proud of their institution’s response sent a check to show their support? Institutions could use the funds to support vulnerable scholars and students hurt by the order.)
Redouble efforts to seek, support and tell the truth. The executive order operationalizes fear and a distrust of the procedures and American personnel engaged in vetting visitors, but without any coherent data or analysis in support of those views. Universities, scholars and students have an obligation to gather, share and present data to inform the debate and any future policy adjustments, which may have major effects not only for higher education but also the entire nation. Such efforts should include gathering data and stories on the people affected by the new restrictions, and sharing that information with elected officials, policy makers and the media so that the negative impacts of the order are widely known.
Continue to build inclusive dialogue on campuses, in communities and across the nation. Colleges and universities should invite those inside America who are affected by the executive order to tell their stories about the order’s impact on their lives -- to allow their stories and bravery to stand in contrast to the fear and cruelty of the executive order. They should organize conferences and public events to expose those impacts. And they should continue to invite scholars and students from abroad -- especially those from targeted countries and those at risk for their work and for supporting free inquiry and expression -- to work, study, visit and attend conferences and events. Even if their applications are denied, we must insist on the inclusion of such scholars and students in our research and learning communities, even as we expose the arbitrary and shortsighted nature of their exclusion.
Robert Quinn is the executive director of Scholars at Risk, a network of over 450 higher education institutions in 35 countries headquartered at New York University and dedicated to protecting threatened scholars and university communities worldwide. For information on hosting threatened scholars, joining the network or otherwise supporting Scholars at Risk, visit www.scholarsatrisk.org.
I was horrified reading the latest diktat on immigration from an administration blown into power by the winds of intolerance and resentment. President Trump’s executive order barring immigrants and nonimmigrant visitors from seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States is an exercise in cynical obfuscation, bigotry and hard-heartedness.
The obfuscation begins early on with the linking of this crackdown to the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 when, as has been pointed out by many commentators, those responsible for those attacks had no connections to the countries targeted by this order. The bigotry of the decree closing our borders to refugees from these seven countries is most evident in the exception it makes for religious minorities in predominantly Muslim countries.
The hard-heartedness of the executive order is unmistakable. Desperate families who have been thoroughly vetted for months have had their dreams of a safe haven in America shattered. Students, scientists, artists and businesspeople who have played by the immigration rules to ensure that they have secure passage to and from the United States now find themselves in limbo. Colleges and universities that attract and depend on international talent will be weakened. So much for the so-called respect for law of an administration that has made a point of promising to crack down on undocumented children brought over the Mexican border by their parents.
Eighteen months ago I solicited ideas from Wesleyan alumni, faculty members, students and staff members as to what a small liberal arts institution like ours could do in the face of the momentous human tragedy unfolding around the world. We discussed the many ideas we received on our campus and with leaders of other institutions. The steps we took were small ones, appropriate to the scale of our institution. Working with the Scholars at Risk program, we welcomed a refugee scholar from Syria to participate in one of our interdisciplinary centers. We created internships for students who wanted to work at refugee sites in the Middle East or assist local effort at resettlement. We began working with the Institute of International Education to bring a Syrian student to Wesleyan. And, perhaps most important, we redoubled our efforts to educate the campus about the genesis and development of the crisis.
In the last few months, I have traveled to China and India to talk about the benefits of pragmatic liberal education, and in both countries I saw extraordinary enthusiasm for coming to America to pursue a broad, contextual education that will develop the student’s capacity to learn from diverse sets of sources. Since returning, I’ve already received questions from anxious international students and their parents about whether we will continue to welcome people from abroad who seek a first-rate education. Students outside the United States are often fleeing educational systems with constraints on inquiry and communication; they are rejecting censorship and premature specialization, and they are looking to us. Will they continue to do so?
Here at home we must resist orchestrated parochialism of all kinds. A liberal education includes deepening one’s ability to learn from people with whom one doesn’t agree, but the politics of resentment sweeping across our country is substituting demonization for curiosity. Without tolerance and open-mindedness, inquiry is just a path to self-congratulation at best, violent scapegoating at worst.
With this latest executive order, the White House has provided colleges and universities the occasion to teach our students more thoroughly about the vagaries of refugee aid from wealthy, developed countries that are themselves in political turmoil. The new administration has also unwittingly provided lessons in the tactics of scapegoating and distraction traditionally used by strongmen eager to cement their own power. There are plenty of historical examples of how in times of crisis leaders make sweeping edicts without regard to human rights or even their own legal traditions.
Our current security crisis has been manufactured by a leadership team eager to increase a state of fear and discrimination in order to bolster its own legitimacy. The fantasy of the need for “extreme vetting” is a noxious mystification created by a weak administration seeking to distract citizens from attending to important economic, political and social issues. Such issues require close examination with a patient independence of mind and a respect for inquiry that demands rejection of falsification and obfuscation.
As the press is attacked with increasing vehemence for confronting the administration with facts, universities have a vital role to play in helping students understand the importance of actual knowledge about the world -- including the operations of politics. To play that role well, universities must be open to concerns and points of view from across the ideological spectrum -- not just from those who share conventional professorial political perspectives. At Wesleyan, we have raised funds to bring more conservative faculty to campus so that our students benefit from a greater diversity of perspectives on matters such as international relations, economic development, the public sphere and personal freedom. Refusing bigotry should be the opposite of creating a bubble of ideological homogeneity.
As I write this op-ed, demonstrators across the country are standing up for the rights of immigrants and refugees. They recognize that being horrified is not enough, and they are standing up for the rule of law and for traditions of decency and hospitality that can be perfectly compatible with national security.
America’s new administration is clearly eager to set a new direction. As teachers and students, we must reject intimidation and cynicism and learn from these early proclamations and the frightening direction in which they point. Let us take what we learn and use it to resist becoming another historical example of a republic undermined by the corrosive forces of obfuscation, bigotry and hard-heartedness.