‘The Elephant In the Room’

Last year, I traveled to India with a straightforward assignment: In the wake of the travel ban and other Trump administration policy changes that took aim at foreigners, how welcoming did prospective international students and their parents see the United States? Would the so-called Trump effect scare them away from studying in America?

What I heard on the ground, however, was far more complicated. Yes, there were questions about visa policies and OPT and the general U.S. political climate. But the thing that people kept pulling me aside to talk about, the thing that caused parents’ foreheads to crease with worry, it was something altogether different. It was guns.

Is it really true every American can have a gun, one father asked me. I saw the faces of the children, a mother said, referring to the shooting at a high school in Parkland, Florida, a few weeks earlier. If my son goes to America, could that be him?

Over the past year, I’ve begun to wonder more and more if guns aren’t the X factor in international admissions. When I called up a longtime source to talk about enrollment trends, he, unbidden, began to tell me about his fear that the legislature in his state would pass a concealed-carry bill. It would be a nightmare for overseas recruiting, he said. At the Association of International Education Administrators conference, I organized a panel session featuring international students. An audience member asked about guns during the Q&A, and the stories came pouring out. One of the students said she felt like she was “really in America” when she went through an active-shooter drill during orientation. A South Korean student said he reassures his nervous parents by reminding them that he had live-fire training during his mandatory military service.

I’m not the only one taking note. World Education Services regularly surveys international students about their experience on American campuses. This year, WES asked students about gun violence, and the finding was startling, said Paul Schulmann, the associate director of research. A quarter of the students were concerned about the possibility of a shooting on their own campus. “It’s the elephant in the room,” he told me.

For this week’s Chronicle cover story, I took measure of the impact that American gun culture may be having on international students’ perceptions of studying in the U.S. The implications could be enormous. As William Pruitt, a former coordinator of international-exchange programs at Virginia Tech, put it, a multibillion-dollar industry could be at risk.

When Pruitt started at Virginia Tech, shortly after the mass shooting there, the message he and other administrators sought to convey abroad was that the violence was an awful aberration. “You could say it then,” he said. “You can’t say it now.”

I’d love to hear your thoughts on international students and American gun culture. You can reach me at latitudesnews@gmail.com or on Twitter @karinfischer.

Bad News on International Enrollments

Happy International Education Week everyone. Unfortunately, I don’t think the Open Doors enrollment numbers, released this morning, are a lot to cheer about.

Yes, in absolute terms, enrollments are up, but a 0.05 percent increase is the weakest year-over-year growth in the 70-year history of Open Doors — except for the few years, following the 2001 terror attacks, when the number of international students in the U.S. actually declined. The unpleasant truth is that without Optional Practice Training, the work program for recent international graduates, enrollments in 2018 — Open Doors lags by a year — would have been in the red, too. Since their fall 2015 high, the number of new international students coming to the U.S. has fallen by more than 31,000.

For more detail — data geeks, I see you! — check out my analysis. Meanwhile, let me renew my request from a couple weeks back: I know international educators, and I know you’re not simply sitting on your hands, bemoaning this enrollment data. So, tell me about your strategies for recruiting a new crop of international students and what trends you think are positive. You’ll be helping with future reporting.

The Benefits of China Collaboration, Quantified

As academic ties with China have come under more-intense U.S. government scrutiny, higher education has been trying to make the case for international research partnerships. Now there’s data to back it up, from Jenny J. Lee and John P. Haupt of the University of Arizona. Their analysis found that the number of scholarly articles published by American researchers in science and engineering would have declined without collaboration from Chinese co-authors. Americans’ research output would have fallen by 2 percent from 2014 to 2018, they conclude, while Chinese publications in science and engineering would have increased even without such cooperation:

“From solely a U.S. nation-state perspective that views scientific advancement as zero-sum competition with winners and losers, the findings demonstrate that the U.S.A. has more to lose than gain in cutting ties with China.”

Government officials continue to sound the alarm about universities’ vulnerabilities to academic espionage. Doug Lederman reported from the Association of Public and Land Grant Universities meeting about the latest warnings.

Around the Globe

University campuses in Hong Kong became flashpoints in violent standoffs between prodemocracy protesters and security forces. Several institutions announced they were cutting the semester short.

The Supreme Court could side with the Trump administration and end a program that shields students and other young adults brought to the U.S. as children from deportation.

Columbia University asked organizers to cancel a panelon China after Chinese student groups allegedly threatened to protest, raising security concerns.

A plan to swap an American and an Australian professor being held hostage in exchange for Taliban prisoners has apparently been postponed.

A political scientist conducting research in Bolivia had to leave the country after local media outlets ran articles falsely claiming she was a U.S. agent.

Moody’s has downgraded its outlook for Oxford and Cambridge because of Brexit.

The Australian government published best-practice guidelines for dealing with foreign influence on campus.

Eighteen Turkish students and a university lecturer are on trial for taking part in a gay pride event.

Greek police fired tear gas at students protesting a university shutdown.

Quebec has suspended proposed changes to a popular fast-track immigration program for foreign students and workers.

Did Yale-NUS violate academic freedom when it canceled a short course on dissent? This podcast, from a former student at the Singaporean liberal arts college, is worth a listen.

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And finally…

This time next week I’ll be flying back to the East Coast to celebrate Thanksgiving with the family. It’s by far my favorite holiday, in part because of its simplicity. Setting aside the nonsense about Pilgrims, it’s about having a good meal with people you care about.

Of course, many people are far from home on the holiday, international students especially. I felt such a pang of recognition in Celeste Ng’s essay in Bon Appetit about the many international students that her mother, a chemistry professor and an immigrant herself, welcomed to the Thanksgiving table throughout her childhood:

“Perhaps my parents invited those foreign students as a way of continuing that cycle, of paying forward what had once been done for them. And despite the oversimplified myth of Thanksgiving I told them, I like to think all those strangers who dined with us over the years understood something true about Thanksgiving nonetheless. That at heart this holiday is about welcoming others — especially those from far away — and making them feel at home. That there is room to acknowledge both the traditions of the place you’re in and the place you come from. That Thanksgiving dinner is a reminder to everyone — including yourself — that there is space, and goodwill, for everyone.”

It’s a basic mssage, yet one that bears repeating, often, in these times.

’Til next week –Karin

A freelance journalist and expert on global issues in higher ed, Karin has been writing for more than a decade about the changing relationship between American colleges and the world.