Trump foreign student threat ‘meant to force campus reopenings’

Universities plot targeted class structures to help avoid deportations

July 8, 2020
A counter-terrorism officer wearing a face mask stands at the entrance of Trump Tower
Source: iStock

The Trump administration made clear that it is threatening international university students with deportation if their campuses move online as part of its broader strategy to force a quick revival of US economic activity.

The policy, which has been stirring fear and outrage across US higher education, was designed to “encourage schools to reopen”, the acting director of homeland security, Ken Cuccinelli, told CNN.

Just as quickly, several colleges began working on plans to help international students overcome the obstacle through steps that include taking legal action and creating tailored course structures that fit within the confines of the administration’s proposed language.

Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology jointly filed a suit in state court in Massachusetts, seeking a restraining order to prohibit enforcement of the administration’s directive. The state of Massachusetts was planning a similar move.

“We will not stand by to see our international students’ dreams extinguished by a deeply misguided order,” Harvard’s president, Lawrence Bacow, said in a letter to the campus community. “We owe it to them to stand up and to fight – and we will.”

MIT’s president, Venezuelan-born Rafael Reif, told his campus community that “welcoming the world’s brightest, most talented and motivated students is an essential American strength”.

Columbia University, meanwhile, suggested meeting the Trump requirement with pro forma gatherings of its foreign students. Its president, Lee Bollinger, issued a statement promising to “configure hybrid classes providing in-person and remote learning options that alleviate the negative effect of these new regulations”.

The University of Pittsburgh, anticipating the need to quickly shift between in-person and online formats, said it too would work with its international students to keep them compliant with the new rule.

The Trump administration, in the policy announced by Mr Cuccinelli’s department, said that foreign students must attend in-person classes this autumn if their university offers them, and cannot remain in the US if their campus moves entirely online.

Mr Cuccinelli offered the explanation on a day in which Trump administration officials made a show of demanding that educational institutions at all levels from primary to tertiary reopen this autumn as part of a return to economic normality that Donald Trump sees as a critical element of his re-election prospects.

The events were highlighted by an hour-plus round-table meeting at the White House at which Mr Trump invited school and college representatives from across the country to describe their fall semester campus reopening plans.

Participants included Finis St John, chancellor of the University of Alabama system, whose campuses are investing in extensive testing of students for infection; and Nicole Washington, a trustee at the Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University, who said the historically black public campus was reopening because most students planned to quit if offered only online teaching.

Mr Trump took the opportunity to blast Harvard as “ridiculous” for planning to offer online instruction in the autumn, with most of its students kept away from campus. “It’s an easy way out,” he said of Harvard’s decision. “They ought to be ashamed of themselves.”

But not even his invited guests were fully committed to on-campus instruction. Sidney McPhee, president of Middle Tennessee State University, told the White House event that “we can’t guarantee anything with regard to the virus”, and he promised that “each and every single class at our university is going to be captured electronically” for students who want that option.

Mr Trump has been regularly countermanding medical experts within his own government who have warned against discounting the risks of the coronavirus in the interest of reversing the nation’s deep economic slide.

US universities have argued that the planned new restrictions on international students are both cruel and economically counterproductive. The US hosts more than 1 million international students, who pay much higher tuition fees on average than US students, and contribute some $45 billion (£36 billion) to the US economy.

Even as Mr Cuccinelli admitted the administration’s strategy of pressuring colleges to resume normal operations, he said in the CNN interview that “anything short of 100 per cent online” would be enough to let international students remain in the US.

And a spokeswoman for the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement service said there was still the possibility of adjustments in language before the final version of the rule is implemented.

“They were afforded a ton of extra flexibility at the height of Covid in the spring,” she said of international students, “and they’re still being afforded a lot of flexibility come fall.”

paul.basken@timeshighereducation.com

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