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Lessons Learned

Feel the glare? The coronavirus has thrust colleges and their response to the potential pandemic in the spotlight.

That’s because few sectors outside the airline industry are as global as higher education. Colleges welcome more than 1 million international students to campus and send another 342,000 students abroad. Faculty and staff travel for research, for conferences, to teach. A handful of universities have campuses overseas; many more offer degrees and other joint programs. Most weeks, the average research university welcomes multiple foreign delegations.

I was thinking about this last week when I wrote about colleges’ response to the coronavirus. In talking with officials at more than a dozen institutions, one of the biggest impressions I was left with was how multifaceted the response had to be: Administrators were constantly weighing numerous factors both on the home campus and abroad. That’s distinctly different than just a decade ago when I covered an outbreak of the swine flu. Then, most of the attention was on outbound students and professors. It’s a reminder of, despite the challenges facing the field, how deeply internationalized higher education has become.

A few other takeaways from my reporter’s notebook:

Higher education has a reputation for being slow and deliberative, but in this case, colleges had to respond to a swiftly changing environment. The U.S. government went from warning travelers about going to Wuhan, the city at the center of the contagion, to telling Americans to stay away from China, period. Major air carriers stopped flying there. One study-abroad director told me he wrote an email to his students in China, got up to go to the bathroom, and by the time he returned to his desk, a fresh advisory was released. Needless to say, he had to draft a new email. I know the feeling: When editors held my story for a day, I had to re-report the whole thing because the prior day’s information was now out of date.

Faculty travel is an extra wrinkle for colleges. As the advisories ratcheted up, many colleges shut down study-abroad programs. But dealing with faculty can be more complicated — often, colleges don’t know when professors travel, or where. “In a decentralized research university environment, coordination is difficult,” said Michael J. Schoenfeld, vice president for public affairs at Duke. As a result, many colleges prohibited university-funded travel or required faculty to report trips to China, rather than issuing a blanket ban.

The coronavirus’ origins in China exacerbate the challenge. More students come from China than from any other country, and college leaders name China as the top spot for international collaboration. It’s among the top 10 destinations for study abroad. Andrew M. Thomas, chief clinical officer at Ohio State’s medical center, told me he regularly checks in with the two faculty members at the university who do research in the Central African Republic, which has been hit with ebola. That sort of personalized attention simply wouldn’t be possible with China — there are more than 4,400 Chinese students at Ohio State. “When you deal with all of the people who come and go to China, the scope and scale is different,” he said.

Communication is key. Thomas said that one of the most important roles of a university-wide task force he helps lead is communication. It’s easy for misinformation to spread and fears to grow. Colleges have to make sure people across campus have the most up-to-date information, from academic leaders to students. And I’d add parents to that list. On Twitter this week, I heard from a number of parents who expressed concern about their children’s safety. It made me wonder whether colleges typically include parents in their communications plans.

Institutions like Duke and Ohio State have a wealth of resources, including dedicated international risk management staff and campus medical centers, to draw on, but what about small colleges? Gary Rhodes, the director of the Center for Global Education and a professor of education at California State University-Dominguez Hills, told me smaller colleges may be able to turn to larger neighboring institutions for help. And there are a lot of external sources of expertise they can rely on, such as this list compiled NAFSA. Still, I’d like to hear directly from small colleges about their strategy to deal with coronavirus. Send me an email at latitudesnews@gmail.com or messsage me on Twitter or LinkedIn. I’ll share what I learn next week.

Trump Administration Expands Travel Ban

The Trump administration Friday afternoon announced that it was expanding its three-year-old travel ban to include six additional countries. But the new executive order notably only applies to immigrant visas, and not to nonimmigrant visas, such as student visas.

By contrast, citizens of the seven countries on the original list were forbidden from entering the United States for any reason, including education. (The administration did exempt student-visa holders from Iran from the earlier restrictions, though in practice, Iranian students have struggled to obtain American visas and some have had their visas voided.)

Still, educators reacted with dismay to the new order. In a statement, Esther D. Brimmer, NAFSA’s executive director, warned:

“The combined effect of this policy expansion and the message it sends will undoubtedly accelerate the alarming decline of international students in the U.S. — more than 10 percent over the last three years. Policies like these and the unwelcoming rhetoric from some of our nation’s leaders continue to hinder our ability to succeed in today’s global competition for talent.”

Together, the six countries added to the restricted list — Eritrea, Kyrgyzstan, Myanmar, Nigeria, Sudan, and Tanzania — send about 17,000 students and scholars to America.

Even as the administration released the new list of prohibited countries, the original order is still being challenged, in the courts and in Congress. A federal appeals court in Virginia last week heard arguments from civil rights groups to allow cases to proceed despite a U.S. Supreme Court ruling upholding the ban. And Speaker Nancy Pelosi said the House of Representatives will vote on legislation to repeal the ban and prevent the administration from establishing future restrictions unless officials provide specific evidence to justify it.

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Harvard Scientist Charged with Lying About China Ties

The chair of Harvard University’s department of chemistry and chemical biology is the most prominent scientist yet to be caught up in a broadening federal investigation into Chinese involvement in potentially sensitive research. Charles M. Lieber, renowned for his work in nanotechnology, was arrested and charged with lying to federal investigators about his ties to China. Lieber was paid $50,000 per month — no, that isn’t a typo — for his work at the Wuhan University of Technology, as part of China’s state-run Thousand Talents program, but made false statements about his involvement with the program, according to a federal affidavit. On Thursday, a judge set Lieber’s bond at $1 million and ordered the scientist and his wife to surrender their passports. In a statement, Harvard said it was conducting its own investigation and suspending Lieber indefinitely.

Amid escalating tension with China, the FBI also released a wanted poster for a former Boston University researcher they say failed to disclose her ties to the Chinese military in her visa application and compiled information on Americans with expertise in robotics and computer science while doing research in the U.S. Yanqing Ye was charged on the same day as Lieber but is reportedly back in China.

Want more of a deep dive? I recommend this Wall Street Journal piece, which opens with this finding: At Texas A&M, more than 100 faculty members were involved with Chinese talent-recruitment programs, yet just five had reported their participation.

Around the Globe

The number of international students in fall 2019 held steady from a year earlier, but enrollments from China and India, the top two sending countries, both fell, according to newly-published student-visa data.

Another Iranian student — this time a Ph.D. student at Michigan State — had his visa canceled when he landed in the U.S. and was forced to leave the country.

Recruiters in the University of Farmington visa sting received sentences between six and 24 months in prison.

The Institute of International Education is expanding its Emergency Student Fund to aid students whose study in the U.S. may be disrupted, including those from China affected by coronavirus, from Australia by wildfires, Philippines by a volcano, and Turkey by earthquakes.

A Chinese mother will plead guilty in the Varsity Blues admissions scandal. Xiaoning Sui was arrested in Spain and detained since September.

On a 5–4 vote, the Supreme Court allowed the administration to start enforcing a new immigrant wealth test, designed to screen out green card applicants seen as being at risk of becoming “public charges.”

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced the creation of a new fast-track visa for scientists in a bid to ease the impact of leaving the EU. I’ll have more on Brexit next week.

An Egyptian court has upheld a decision to ban female professors at Cairo University from wearing the niqab.

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro has named a creationist to lead an agency that oversees science and higher-education policy.

Iranian schools and universities will begin teaching a course on “America’s Crimes and Conspiracies.”

IIE announced the winners of its annual Andrew Heiskell Award for innovation in international education. Congrats to Rice University, Harper College, Lehigh University, and the University of Tulsa.

Around the globe, young people want more diversity and equity of opportunity in education, according to a new survey commissioned by the World Innovation Summit for Education.

Bangladesh will lift restrictions on education for Rohingya refugees. The lack of educational opportunity for this persecuted Muslim minority was a focus of a recent piece I wrote on the Asian University for Women.

And finally …

Readers of this newsletter will know that I do a lot of reporting about free speech and international students. Now I’ll be part of a terrific panel discussion on this topic, “Can International Students Speak Freely Everywhere,” organized by ISEP Study Abroad and the Free Speech Project at Georgetown University on Monday, February 17, at 9 a.m. at the Omni Shoreham Hotel in Washington. If you’ll be in D.C. for AIEA or you want to spend your Presidents’ Day talking about a principle valued by the Founding Fathers, I hope you’ll join us. One catch: The organizers are asking people interested in attending to preregister by the end of the day today. I hope you will — and I look forward to hearing your perspectives on this issue!

’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.