Biden sets tone of global engagement, but what comes next?

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President Biden means “hope” for international education, readers say. And MIT faculty dispute claims against a colleague arrested for his China ties, saying they reflect a “deep misunderstanding” of international research.

Biden Takes Over

“The world is watching, watching all of us today,” Joe Biden said, after he was sworn in as the 46th president of the United States. “The answer,” he added, “is not to turn inward.”

President Biden had barely finished swearing his oath when he signed 17 executive orders, including one ending the Trump administration’s ban on travelers, including students and scholars, from a half-dozen largely Muslim countries and another preserving DACA, which protects young immigrants brought to the U.S. as children from deportation. He also announced a major piece of legislation, comprehensive immigration reform, which, among other provisions, would make it possible for more international PhD graduates in STEM fields to stay in the U.S. (As of this writing, the bill text was not yet available.)

When, less than a week after taking office, former President Trump imposed the travel ban, he sent a signal that immigration and visa policy — and international students and scholars — would be politicized. Likewise, Biden is setting a clear tone from Day One, of openness and global engagement.

Still, attitude and action are different things, and there’s no guarantee about what comes next. Governing by executive order and rulemaking repeatedly tripped the Trump administration up, and while I would expect the Biden team to be more careful in following procedure, decrees like the flurry of those signed on Inauguration Day could be subject to legal challenge. Biden’s quick work of undoing many Trump initiatives also underscores the impermanence of unilateral presidential orders.

Meanwhile, getting broad legislative reform done is just hard. Past administrations tried and failed to pass immigration bills, and their legislative margins weren’t nearly as narrow. Already, I’ve heard rumblings that, if stymied, the Biden administration could break off pieces of the broader bill. Such standalone legislation could favor an effort like expanding green cards for PhDs, which has bipartisan support. But is it a priority?

OK, enough speculation. For many in international education, the new administration was a reason for celebration. Here’s a taste of what was shared with me:

“It means hope,” wrote a graduate student at Texas Tech. “It means being able to breathe freely and having the weight that has been on my chest for months and years lifted. It means being able to visit my family this summer without fearing that immigration policy will be changed in the middle of my trip.”

A parent in Dubai said it renewed confidence in the choice to send his daughter to the U.S. “Many countries export degrees, but we chose America for an education. An education in not only our chosen field of study but an education in a way to be and pursue goals with a zeal and freedom possible only in America.”

From the head of an Indian admissions-counseling company:

Finally, a recent graduate told me that she hasn’t “felt this hopeful about my own, America’s, and the world’s future since I can remember. I know things won’t be perfect, but there will no longer be erratic and unexpected new rules just out of cruelty. I feel like I can let my guard down for the first time since coming to the U.S.”

Share your perspective on developing news or join the discussion about trends in international education on Twitter and LinkedIn.

Professors Question China Charges

Some 100 MIT faculty members have signed a letter supporting nanotechnology professor Gang Chen, who was indicted last week for allegedly failing to disclose his ties to China and for wire fraud.

The letter, to MIT President L. Rafael Reif, calls the criminal complaint against Chen “baffling” and “deeply flawed in its assertions.” In charging Chen, the professors write, the government “vilifies what would be considered normal academic and research activities.”

Among the points made by the professors:

  • Prosecutors allege that Chen and his research group individually took money from China’s Southern University of Science and Technology, but MIT was the recipient of the funding, the professors say. The university has a formal relationship with SUSTech, and Chen was the faculty leader of the center. Such cooperative international research partnerships, they point out, are common at MIT and among U.S. universities.
  • The government says Chen, who has pleaded not guilty to the charges, hid his ties to China, but his colleagues note he routinely reported such collaborations, including 62 references to China in his publicly available CV.
  • The complaint says Chen “served the PRC” by recommending students for jobs and scholarships in China. Providing references is a routine part of faculty work, the professors counter.
  • Prosecutors charge that Chen defrauded taxpayers of $19 million in federal grants, but his colleagues say the claim is unsubstantiated.

Background reading: The Chen case caused me to flashback to another prosecution of a Chinese-American scientist. Xi Xiaoxing was accused of selling secrets to China, but the government’s case was built on a fundamentally flawed understanding of the science and the charges were eventually dropped. Plus, MIT has built deep research partnerships around the world, including in places like China where U.S. relations are contentious or even adversarial. I took a look.

Relatedly: The Wall Street Journal reports that the Justice Department is considering an amnesty program that would permit American academics to report past foreign funding without being penalized for their disclosures.

And more: On its way out the door, the Trump administration expanded its investigation of colleges’ gifts, contracts, or other ties with foreign governments or other overseas entities to include a half-dozen additional universities — Auburn, Florida State, Georgia State, Nevada-Las Vegas, New Mexico, and Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

A Shift on Standardized Testing

The College Board announced last week that it was discontinuing SAT subject tests and the optional essay section of the SAT, the latest in a series of changes to standardized testing that have been accelerated by Covid. In recent months, a number of American colleges, most notably the University of California, have moved to suspend or do away with the use of standardized exams in admissions. The expectation is that many of these changes will stick past the pandemic.

But what does the shift toward test-optional — or test-not-at-all — mean for international admissions? Much of the debate has focused on the American context. On one hand, the use of tests like the SAT and ACT raises accessibility concerns — students from mainland China, the largest group of international students, are not allowed to take the SAT in their home country, for one. Yet, standardized tests also offer a benchmark for assessing students from systems where grading isn’t comparable to the U.S. or transcripts aren’t kept. And for students coming for countries where an all-or-nothing college entrance exam determines admissions, it’s a familiar aspect of an otherwise confusing American admissions process.

I want to write more about the role of testing in international admissions and would be interested in hearing all perspectives — from students, parents, college counselors, U.S. admissions officers. Send your thoughts to latitudesnews@gmail.com.

Around the Globe

A proposed rule that would have imposed strict time limits on student visas is no more after the Trump administration failed to push it over the finish line.

The U.S. State Department is offering capacity-building grants to expand and diversify American study abroad. The deadline is February 26.

China is ordering universities to expand graduate-school capacity in response to large-scale youth unemployment.

Chinese authorities are stepping up plagiarism spot checks, and universities with track records of undergraduate cheating could lose funding or their right to enroll students.

Patriotic but progressive. Passionate about homegrown causes but skeptical about the world around them. Read this report on today’s young Chinese.

Hong Kong lawmakers want university leaders to get tough on students who are pro-democracy activists.

French students have protested the closure of the country’s universities as the Covid outbreak speads.

In Pakistan, students are protesting the decision to hold on-campus exams.

Israeli academics are calling on their government to permit students from Gaza to attend universities abroad.

Hungary will host the only Chinese university campus in the European Union.

The Philippine military has ended a longstanding agreement that banned the armed forces and police from conducting operations on the country’s main university campus.

Iranian students are still being deported despite having valid visas.

As Zoom takes over, campus debates about Israel and the Palestinian terrorities have migrated online.

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And finally…

For many inaugural viewers, Amanda Gorman stole the show with her poetry recitation. Not only is Gorman the national youth poet laureate, she’s also an alum of study abroad. Gorman, who studied in Madrid with IES Abroad, says education abroad made her “a better poet, a better person, and a better student.”

’Til next week — Karin

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