Photo by Michael Fousert

A newly reinstated academy advisory group aims to open more channels between international ed and DHS. Plus, a possible China Initiative dismissal and lessons from a branch-campus flare-up.

DHS Advisory Group Formed

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security will reestablish an advisory council to provide guidance and feedback to top government officials on education-related issues, including those that affect international students.

In a notice published in the Federal Register, the department announced the formation of the Homeland Security Academic Advisory Council, which will serve on a discretionary basis to “provide advice and recommendations to the Secretary and DHS senior leadership on matters related to homeland security and the academic community.”

If the advisory council sounds familiar, that’s because one operated under the Obama administration, allowing for consistent dialogue between colleges and a key federal agency on international-education matters. Its revival can be seen a tangible step toward the Biden administration’s pledge of a “renewed commitment” and more unified approach to advancing international education.

Version 1.0 of the committee was started by then-Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, who went on to head the University of California, with the goal of “connect[ing] the dots across the department in all the ways in which we have a nexus to academe,” one of Napolitano’s deputies told me at the time.

It met regularly throughout the Obama years but was disbanded under a Trump administration executive order slashing the number of federal-government advisory panels. Officials had, however, explored the possibility of setting up an academic group with a similar consultative function at the end of the Trump presidency.

The American Council on Education last year included reinstating the council among its key recommendations to newly appointed Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, saying it should have “a clear focus on higher education and international students.”

When the panel was first formed, in 2012, Homeland Security was under fire for allowing a number of visa mills — sham universities that essentially sold higher ed as a backdoor into the U.S. for foreign workers — to operate on its watch. Today’s issues could include processing times for Optional Practical Training and work authorization, scrutiny of international students at border entry points, research security, and future policy guidance for hybrid and online learning for student-visa holders. 

The committee will also weigh in on issues related to elementary and secondary education as well as non-international-education topics affecting colleges, such as cybersecurity, professional development, and university-based homeland-security research.

Its 30 members will include representatives of higher-education associations; community colleges and four-year institutions; historically Black, Asian American, Hispanic-serving, and tribal colleges; and academic labor. It will also have members from K-12 education, law enforcement, and other federal agencies.

One group that’s not represented is international students, an omission that may be related to the time commitment and the vetting process required of government appointees.

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China Case to Be Dropped

Federal prosecutors are expected to drop charges against a MIT professor charged as part of the China Initiative, the U.S. government investigation of academic and economic espionage.

Prosecutors in Boston have sent a memo recommending dismissal of the case against Gang Chen to U.S. Department of Justice officials in D.C., The Washington Post reported. The engineering professor was accused of concealing his ties with a Chinese university when applying for federal grants. But a senior Energy Department official reportedly told prosecutors that Chen wasn’t required to disclose such information at the time and that the department wouldn’t have withheld its funding if grant administrators had known of the association.

Government lawyers also apparently learned that Chen had emailed a colleague asking to have an affiliation with a Chinese talent-recruitment program removed from a grant because the affiliation was inaccurate — not because he was trying to cover up the connection, as prosecutors had originally contended. The new evidence undercuts the government case, and charges could be dropped in the “coming weeks,” people familiar with the matter told the Post

The dismissal would be the highest-profile setback for the three-year-old China Initiative, which is under review by the Biden administration. It comes just weeks after the government’s first, and only, conviction of an academic as part of the investigation. 

Yet, I’d argue that conviction and dismissal alike highlight some central questions about the future of the China Initiative. Read more.

In other China Initiative news…

  • A Massachusetts court has ruled that Harvard does not have to pay the legal bills of Charles M. Lieber, the chemistry professor convicted last month of hiding his ties to a Chinese talent-recruitment program.
  • A federal judge in Texas has denied a Texas A&M professor’s motion to dismiss the China Initiative charges against him.

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Lessons from a Branch Campus

Just before Thanksgiving, professors at Texas A&M University’s campus in Qatar got an unexpected and unwelcome email: There would be a sweeping reorganization of the campus’s liberal-arts and sciences programs, and faculty in those fields would be moved in instruction-only positions, unable, except in a few cases, to conduct research.

Professors at the engineering-focused outpost, and at Texas A&M’s home campus, pushed back, and university administrators have since said they would “tap on the brakes” of the restructuring plan. A committee will be appointed to study possible changes in Qatar.

Still, the episode offers some core lessons when it comes to international branch campuses, among them:

The tensions between universities and their hosts are inherent in branch campuses. Officials with the Qatar Foundation, Texas A&M’s local partner, have been unequivocal in saying that they did not dictate the change, as have university administrators. “I think it is important to clarify that this is a proposal of the university,” Francisco J. Marmolejo, president of the foundation’s higher-education arm, told me.

Yet, the reorg was precipitated by and with the goal of meeting performance indicators tied to engineering research and local economic impact that were laid out in a new contract between the university and the foundation. Branch campuses are almost always funded by their hosts, experts told me, and when one party holds the purse strings, they can never be truly equal partnerships.

Texas A&M in Qatar, courtesy of the university

Keeping a university’s DNA in an overseas branch campus is tough. Texas A&M is supposed to offer an equivalent education in Qatar, but it’s never been identical — for one, the campus offers only engineering degrees. Over time, it’s inevitable that evolution occur, especially in a campus approaching its third decade, said Jason Lane, dean of education at Miami University of Ohio and a researcher in cross-border education. An offshore campus must operate in two different cultural and regulatory environments, but it also is likely to become more embedded locally.

“I always viewed branch campuses as sort of Janus-faced,” Lane said, “with one face pointed at the home institution and the other looking locally.”

Shared governance in international campuses can be messy. At Texas A&M, the showdown over the Qatar campus came amid broader clashes between faculty members and the administration around leadership changes and Covid-19 policies. But Dale Rice, speaker of the university’s Faculty Senate, questioned why faculty leaders weren’t part of the lengthy negotiations over the latest contract with the Qatar Foundation. The incident reveals how disconnected professors are from the Qatar campus and decisions about it, he said. 

Check out my analysis in The Chronicle.

Around the Globe

Dartmouth announced it will return to a need-blind admissions policy for all students, regardless of citizenship.

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services rarely shared information about DACA recipients with immigration-enforcement agencies over a 10-year period, a GAO study concluded.

The State Departmen has restarted refugee admissions

The Wilson Center has begun a new visiting fellowship program at the think tank for foreign scholars who face threats to their lives or careers in their home countries.

The Association of American Colleges and Universities has changed its name to reflect the organization’s more global reach. 

New Jersey will offer in-state tuition and state financial aid to some immigrants and foreign residents

Hundreds of Indian students are struggling to get refunds after three Quebec colleges filed for creditor protection.

The Indian government has said all universities funded by the central government should use a common entrance exam starting with the 2022 academic year.

Test-prep giant New Oriental laid off 60,000 staff members amid a Chinese regulatory crackdown on tutoring companies. 

The number of South Korean students studying abroad in 2020 fell by more than 40 percent.

A professor arrested for criticizing the Taliban has been released by Afghan authorities. 

Afghanistan’s higher-education minister said female students will be allowed to resume their education once a system is set up for segregation by sex.

Amid incidents of anti-Asian bias, students at a number of colleges are pressing for the establishment of Asian American studies programs.

New podcast alert! Global Scholar Stories is produced by the Journal of International Students.

And finally…

NAFSA’s also in the forecasting game — I joined 10 international-education leaders to share trends, challenges, and opportunities we’re watching for in the coming year for International Educator magazine.

Meanwhile, I can’t stop thinking about one particular reader submission from last week’s Crystal ball edition of the newsletter. Stephanie Doscher of Florida International University wrote that she had “grave” worries about the mental-health challenges facing people in the field:

Many colleagues have shared their struggles regarding Covid’s impacts on their personal and professional identity. Internationalists are drawn to the diverse sensory stimulation brought on by meeting new people and going to new places. We are starved for the stimulation that gives so much meaning to our lives – without it, who are we? What is our mission? What else gives us as much pleasure and purpose? I see increasing numbers of younger and mid-career international-education professionals pivoting to private-sector jobs in search of answers. As it becomes increasingly obvious that Covid will be with us for the long haul, I’m concerned that mental-health challenges will deepen in 2022.

I think this is an important topic, and I want to write more. I’d like talk with international educators dealing with the strains of the pandemic or supporting colleagues who may be struggling. Given the sensitive nature of the subject, your name and other identifying information can be kept confidential. I’d also love to hear from experts with advice and insight about how to cope. Email me at

’Til next week —Karin

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A weekly newsletter about what matters in global higher education and why. By Karin Fischer.

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.