Courtesy of Mohammed Rahmani via Unsplash
Sign up to get Latitude(s)

Heartbreak and What You Can Do

An Afghan student studying abroad fears for the safety of siblings still at home. A university president works to evacuate students from Afghanistan and find them places to study. Higher-education groups raise emergency funds.

As the precipitous and tragic crisis in Afghanistan unfolds, students, scholars, and researchers are vulnerable. For years, the Taliban has targeted academics and universities in its attacks. In particular, it has opposed the education of women and girls. 

Some American colleges are erasing any mention of past collaborations with Afghan colleagues from their websites or social media out of fear that such western ties could make them Taliban targets.

Jonathan Becker, the acting president of the American University of Central Asia, has been scrambling to try to get endangered students out of Afghanistan. “The stakes are high for all students but especially for young women who won’t be able to pursue higher education under the Taliban,” he said. “These are women who are smart, who are empowered, who are extraordinary.”

Working with the Open Society University Network and Bard College, where he is also vice president for academic affairs, Becker has persuaded universities to host displaced students and raised tens of thousands of dollars to pay for chartered airplanes. Bard will take as many as 100 students as well as threatened scholars. But a big challenge remains: how to get visas for the students to go other countries.

In recent days, Becker got some good news: The government of Kyrgyzstan, where AUCA is located, has pledged to issue 500 visas to students from Afghanistan. Now, he hopes other countries will do the same. “It’s a sprint to get these students out.”

I’ve also been in contact with Afghan students who have shared heartbreaking and harrowing stories. One student who is studying abroad told me how much she worries about her sisters who are still in Afghanistan; they have lost their chance to study, to work, to live their lives, she fears. Another told me that her family has gone into hiding. “We are not sure about tomorrow,” she said.

I hope to tell you more about these amazing students, but for now, they worry that revealing even minor details could put their families at risk.

One of them asked me to appeal to you: Urge your elected officials to advocate for the presence of troops in Afghanistan, she said. Lobby the U.S. government not to recognize the Taliban government unless it guarantees human rights and women’s rights and refrains from persecutions based on ethnicity, gender, language, and religion. Ask humanitarian and media organizations to remain in Afghanistan.

Here are some other resources for aiding students and scholars in Afghanistan and how you can be part of higher ed’s response:

The Institute of International Education is organizing the Afghanistan Crisis Response. Among its efforts is an emergency fund that will give Afghan students in the United States one-time grants to cover education, living, or health-related expenses. Nominations are due September 15. IIE’s Scholar Rescue Fund is also awarding emergency fellowships to Afghan scholars and seeking universities to host threatened or displaced academics. You can read more about how to assist and donate.

Scholars at Risk is circulating a letter among American academics and higher-ed leaders to U.S. government officials urging them to take immediate action to help save Afghanistan’s scholars, students, and civil-society actors. You can also sign up to receive regular updates from the group about its work on Afghanistan and how you can help, including supporting threatened scholars. Already, more than 140 institutions have made a commitment, SAR says. 

A team led by the University of California at Davis is offering a cloud-based system to allow Afghans store academic records and other credentials. The Taliban could destroy academic records, and some Afghans may themselves destroy documents that could be used against them. Article 26 Backpack allows people to safely and securely upload important materials and is available in Arabic, English, French, Spanish, and Dari/Farsi. Universities and organizations can serve as “backpack guides.”

The University of the People is offering 1,000 scholarships for Afghan women to pursue an American-accredited bachelor’s degree online. Students from Afghanistan who meet the admissions requirements will be automatically awarded scholarships.

The University Alliance for Refugees and At-Risk Migrants is an association of researchers, practitioners, students, and policymakers that seeks to tap universities to protect and advocate for refugees, migrants, and other displaced people. Among its resources is the Student Voices Toolkit, which provides materials and information for U.S. college communities to help support and expand higher-education services for students from a refugee background

I plan to update this list, so please contact me with additional ways to help. You can also message me on Twitter or LinkedIn.

Teaching About Displacement

Muhammad Zaman and Carrie Preston come from different backgrounds, both professional and personal. Zaman, a professor of biomedical engineering at Boston University, grew up in Pakistan in the 1980s, when an earlier conflict in Afghanistan sent a flow of refugees across the border. Preston, a professor of English and women’s, gender, and sexuality studies at BU, spent her childhood on a farm in Michigan, where migrant workers helped bring in the crops.

But the pair came together to create and teach a course on the global crisis of forced displacement, a required class in BU’s honors college, where Preston is the director. With the potential of another refugee crisis in Afghanistan, I talked with the professors about why it’s important to bring current events into the classroom and the value of taking an interdisciplinary approach. The interview has been edited for space and clarity.

Why it is so important to tackle global problems like forced displacement in a multidisciplinary way? 

MZ  Historically, these things have been taught in political science, perhaps in anthropology and sociology. But there is a tremendous opportunity, and a role and responsibility, for sciences and health. I need to spend time with historians and gender theorists and critical-race theorists to understand the aspects of xenophobia, colonialism, and racism that permeate the conversation when it comes to refugees. My ability to work on these problems from a health lens would always be inadequate unless I work with colleagues from other disciplines, just as we do with climate change or racism or issues of poverty and inequity.

Why do you think the default is to see issues around displacement as belonging to a few disciplines?

MZ  That’s how the university is organized. We are very tribal in the sense that we tend to hire people who we know, whose work we know and can analyze. When people speak a different academic language, it is hard for us to assess the quality. Both Carrie and I are at stages of our careers where we can take those risks, we are both tenured professors. But I think for younger faculty, working on issues of refugee health would be a lot harder. There’s still a disincentive for many people to go outside their domain.

CP  I’ve gotten pushback: What do you know, as a scholar of performance and gender, about the Syrian refugee crisis? Wait a second, nobody knew much about that back when we were in graduate school. You couldn’t have had done your thesis on that. In the humanities, we are comfortable showing how history impacts the present and how crucial it is to know history to understand an emerging situation and emerging conflict. In the conversations I’m having about Afghanistan, you’ve got to know the history of this country, the history of the Taliban, the history of religious belief and conflict to understand what’s happening now.

How did you create the course?

MZ  It took a couple of years for us to put it together. How do you cover something as complex as the global displacement crisis? Do you focus on a particular region? Do you focus only on the theory? And I don’t think we’ve figured it out completely. We are trying to create this environment where we’re learning from each other. The students are brilliant, and they come in with their own worldviews that enrich the discussion.

CP  In an interdisciplinary team-taught class like this, it’s very crucial that we’re all contributing. There’s not a single lecturer. I spoke on the day devoted to gender but so did Muhammad. We asked each other questions, we try to point to how we are engaged with each other’s material and learning from each other and even disagreeing at moments. Those are very productive conversations, and some of what the students regularly comment on liking the best.

A big piece of the class is the students working in groups, identifying different problems, doing needs assessment, and proposing solutions to the challenges. While we were in class last spring, the vaccine became available. Many students were interested in the question of Israel’s responsibility to provide the Covid vaccine to Palestine, what an occupying force’s responsibility is to health during a pandemic.

How will you incorporate current events in Afghanistan into your course?

CP  We’re teaching in the spring, and we are already sharing materials. But it will evolve because these situations evolve so rapidly. Last spring I had a whole class planned on the history of Israel and Palestine. That very morning, then-President Trump released his so-called Middle East peace plan. And we just had to talk through that. You’ve got to scrap your plan because this is more important. 

What are ways that other academics can begin thinking about how to address issues around displacement in their own classrooms? 

CP  Our students are so hungry to feel the relevance of their studies to what’s going on right now. I think of all the years that I taught different perspectives on feminism, and there was always a class on Islamic feminism. Earlier in my career, I might have taught that as theory. I now understand how much students want to connect what they’re learning in the classroom to things that are going on. I would encourage faculty to bring those bring these texts and allow students to engage with them with a sense of the contemporary moment. I believe they’re rich opportunities.

MZ  Speaking as somebody who is in STEM, I find it troubling that some of these challenges facing humanity are not discussed as often in STEM as they ought to be. It doesn’t mean that people shouldn’t do rigorous research, it doesn’t mean that people should do away with their methodologies. But it certainly means that we — especially in disciplines that talk about human wellbeing and welfare like biology, clinical sciences, biomedical engineering — cannot keep thinking that these are only political issues.

What have you heard from your students about how your course affects their college experience?

MZ  This summer I had a student who worked after finishing the course on access to health among the stateless in Pakistan. She’s done a phenomenal job, and we are working with agencies for funding. Another student who was in the class has become the go-to person in our research group for mathematical modeling of nutrition among Yemeni children. She published a research paper while she was a junior, and her model is now being used by UNICEF in several countries. From computer science or mathematics, this would have been very difficult for somebody like her to navigate if it wasn’t for the course. There are new possibilities for these students who are now breaking barriers, combining statelessness and refugee studies with computer science and mathematics.

A Talent Dividend

At many American universities, it would be difficult to maintain graduate programs in science and technology without international students. That’s the conclusion of a new report from the National Foundation for American Policy, which attempts to quantify U.S. higher ed’s reliance on attracting students from abroad.

That dependence is growing. In a number of key STEM fields, three-quarters of graduate students come from overseas.

Over the past two decades, the number of full-time international graduate students in computer and information sciences increased by 310 percent, from 10,930 in 1998 to 44,786 in 2019, the report notes. By comparison, the number of domestic students grew from 9,042 to 17,334 over the same period, an increase of 91 percent.

Likewise, student-visa holders in electrical engineering have outpaced enrollments by Americans, a 130 percent growth rate over the last 20 years compared a 12 percent one.

At the same time, increases in both the size and number of graduate programs in science and engineering at American universities indicates that domestic students haven’t been crowded out by a lack of available slots at U.S. graduate schools.

Instead, the report emphasizes the risks if the flow of talented international students ebbs. “There are not enough domestic students alone in certain fields” to support critical research, said Stuart Cooper, a professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering at Ohio State University.

In the last few years, international enrollments have slowed in some STEM fields. That could spell bad news for colleges and employers.

The report specifically looks at the impact of a recent presidential order directed at Chinese graduate students who previously attended universities believed to be associated with the Chinese military. Presidential Proclamation 10043 was issued by President Trump, but President Biden has maintained the policy, which denies visas to an estimated 3,000 to 5,000 graduate students a year. Every 1,000 Ph.D. students blocked from U.S. universities cost an estimated $210 billion in the expected value of patents produced at universities over 10 years, the report says.

Did someone forward you this email? Subscribe and get latitude(s) in your in-box weekly.

Around the Globe

Colleges can nominate students from Haiti in the U.S. who have been affected by the deadly earthquake there for IIE’s Emergency Student Fund.

International-education groups have sent a list of recommendations to the Biden administration about the importance of English-language training and the role it should play in a renewed commitment to global education.

Wayne State University is suing the U.S. Department of Homeland Security over delays in processing work-authorization extensions for a critical researcher.

China’s Ministry of Education has released a list of nearly 300 canceled partnerships with international universities, but the cumulative tally includes long-dormant and previously shuttered academic programs and agreements.

SciHub, which allows users to download scientific papers for free, is getting funding via Chinese online payment platform Alipay after it was kicked off PayPal because of its legal controversies.

The Russian government will award 100 universities more than $1 million annually through 2030 in a bid to raise academic quality and improve higher ed’s contribution to national development goals.

Hong Kong police arrested four student leaders for “advocating terrorism.”

A survey on academic freedom in Singapore found that a majority of scholars there said academics are “subject to interference or incentivized to self-censor at least occasionally.”

The University of Nottingham will buy out its Malaysian branch-campus partner.

Yemeni academics are among hundreds of professionals caught in a wave of mass firings of Yemenis in Saudi Arabia.

A global university partnership seeks to revive and preserve indigenous African languages.

An investigative piece looks at the sometimes shadowy business of selling Canadian education to international students.

Harvard University topped the Academic Ranking of World Universities for the 19th year in a row.

And finally…

Latitude(s) will be taking a short publishing break. I’m looking forward to a week of lake swims, family game nights, and spotty wifi.

I’ll be back in your in-boxes on Monday, September 6. Stay well! —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.