A House bill would restore the Fulbright Program in China and Hong Kong, Covid caused big drops in international scholars in the U.S., and what a recent firestorm says about foreign students and campus free speech.

Restoring Exchange

The U.S. House has passed legislation to restore Fulbright exchanges to China and Hong Kong.

A little-noticed amendment in a recently approved China competition bill would reverse a July 2020 decision by the Trump administration to end the signature U.S. government exchange program with China and Hong Kong. The move to sever cultural ties with China — the Peace Corps also pulled out of China on President Trump’s watch — occurred during heightened Sino-American tensions.

Rep. Rick Larsen, a Washington Democrat and one of the sponsors of the amendment, said in a statement that reinstating Fulbright would “build U.S. expertise on China, strengthen people-to-people ties, and give Chinese participants a chance to experience the real U.S. and the benefits of academic freedom.” (Larsen’s amendment was actually specific to mainland China as the underlying America COMPETES Act already contained language restoring the Hong Kong program.)

Trump’s decision was criticized as short sighted by many in international education and foreign policy who said it was important to better understand China as a growing superpower — whether friend or foe. At the time, I spoke with Glenn Shive, a former Fulbright administrator in Hong Kong and China, who told me:

“This deepens the downward spiral of U.S.-China relations and further politicizes people-to-people exchange programs that have served American public diplomacy with China over four decades.” 

The reinstatement, of course, is not a done deal. The House and Senate will now have to work out final competition legislation, and the Senate measure did not include the Fulbright language. 

But it’s also worth noting — and correct me if I’m wrong — that since Trump killed the China/Hong Kong Fulbright by executive order, the Biden administration could have acted on its own to rescind it. Congressional approval might be needed, however, to appropriate or redirect funds to the program.

The America COMPETES Act also includes a provision providing special immigrant visas for Afghan Fulbright scholars currently studying in the U.S. as well as alumni of the program who have returned to Afghanistan.

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A Free-Speech Firestorm

After a Chinese-student group complained about posters criticizing China’s human-rights record, George Washington University’s president called them offensive. Then he reversed himself and said they are protected speech.

The free-speech controversy began when posters satirizing the Beijing Olympic Games as a way to call attention to Chinese human-rights abuses appeared on the GW campus. The university’s Chinese Students and Scholars Association criticized the posters — which featured images such as an athlete snowboarding atop a surveillance camera and a curler throwing a Covid virus across the ice — as “racist” and an “attack on the Chinese nation.”

The student group called for those who hung the posters to be punished and for a “public apology to all Chinese and all Asian students.” Interim President Mark S. Wrighton appeared to agree, saying in a message that was posted on Twitter that he was “saddened by this terrible event” and promising to find out who was responsible.

Wrighton’s comments quickly came under fire. Critics said the president was squashing campus speech and pointed out that if students from China or Hong Kong put up the posters, they and their families could face repercussions if their names were made public.

Wrighton backtracked: “Upon full understanding, I do not view these posters as racist; they are political statements. There is no university investigation underway, and the university will not take any action against the students who displayed the posters.”

The blow-up underscores twin tensions: College leaders must be alert to discrimination against Asian and Asian American students and scholars. But some Chinese students have sought to shut down speech that they perceive as critical of the Chinese government, raising concerns that Chinese censorship will effectively spread to U.S. campuses.

I spoke with Sarah McLaughlin, director of targeted advocacy for the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a group that advocates for free speech.

How does the presence of large numbers of international students, some from countries that don’t have the same standards or expectations for free expression, complicate campus debates around speech?

When international students constitute significant numbers of a campus population, I think they can reasonably expect that administrators will respond to their concerns seriously. But it can become a free speech issue, especially in terms of CSSAs, when those students expect their preferences for political censorship to be recognized. Administrators are responsible for responding to accusations of discrimination on their campus, but there have been a growing number of cases of students alleging that criticism of their country, most often China, constitutes bias against them. 

Yet it’s a possibility Chinese students could have hung the posters. Is there a balancing act colleges need to strike to protect the speech of students from countries like China, even if it’s from their own countrymen?

Administrators have thus far been almost entirely absent from the conversation about how to protect international students’ speech rights, and it’s a real shame that they have essentially left this fight up to students and faculty. In cases like the one at GW, at minimum administrators need to first think about what the consequences would be for the student if they did choose to investigate anonymous political speech. It troubles me that they did not recognize that immediately. 

Should colleges be setting campus speech policies that specifically recognize the significant presence of large numbers of international students on campuses today?

I think campuses would benefit from giving their students — both international and American — better education at the start of their college careers about their speech rights and what they can and cannot expect from administrators. That would help both the students who might wrongly expect their campus to censor political speech and students who may want to engage in such speech but don’t know if they’ll be protected. I think campuses should treat seriously the idea that they may be a rare opportunity for students from repressive countries to speak their mind, and ensure that their policies and procedures respect that opportunity. 

Scholarly Exchange Nose Dives

The number of international scholars on American campuses sank by a third during the 2020-21 academic year, yet another sign of Covid-19’s toll on global exchange.

Just 85,500 visiting foreign researchers, postdocs, and scholars were in the U.S. last year, according to new data from the Institute of International Education. It’s the first time since 2006 that the number of international scholars in the U.S. fell below 100,000.

The declines were largely caused by the absence of new scholars. Half of reporting institutions told IIE they had frozen new appointments. But more than 60 percent of universities said they had extended existing appointments, meaning that some scholars who would have otherwise returned home stayed in American through the pandemic.

The number of scholars from China, the top source of visiting researchers, fell particularly sharply, by nearly 40 percent. By contrast, numbers from India, which ranks second, dipped by just 6 percent.

Courtesy of the Institute of International Education

In a briefing, Mirka Martel, senior director of research and evaluation for IIE, noted that travelers from China, including students and scholars, had faced earlier and more stringent restrictions. IIE does not ask universities to explain the factors behind declining participation. 

In addition to limitations on Covid travel, the period being tracked, July 2020 to June 2021, also coincides with a ramping up of U.S. investigations of research security, with a particular focus on China. Recent surveys of international graduates and early-career scientists have found that government policy is having a chilling effect, leading many to reconsidering staying or working in the U.S.

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Convicted Prof Asks for Acquittal

Attorneys for Charles M. Lieber, the Harvard professor convicted of hiding his ties to China, have filed a motion asking for acquittal or a new trial.

In the filing, Lieber’s lawyers call his conviction a “manifest injustice,” saying that prosecutors “warped” statements the former chemistry department chair made to investigators. They also argue that some of his statements to the FBI should be suppressed.

Lieber’s guilty verdict was the highest-profile conviction in the federal China Initiative, but Harvard President Lawrence S. Bacow told the Harvard Crimson that it would not lead the university to shut off international collaboration or exchange.  “It’s important that the United States continue to be open to scholars around the world,” Bacow said.

And a Temple University professor who was previously the subject of a bungled federal investigation for allegedly sharing technological secrets with China is asking a federal appeals court to reinstate his claims for damage against the U.S. government. 

Lawyers for Xiaoxing Xi said in a brief that a judge erred when he dismissed most of the claims last year and that FBI agents “intentionally, knowingly, or recklessly” made false statements and misrepresented evidence so that prosecutors could get an indictment. The charges against Xi were dropped.

Around the Globe

MIT President L. Rafael Reif, one of the most forceful voices in U.S. higher education for international education, student exchange and mobility, and global academic and research collaboration is stepping down

The Biden administration has told a federal judge it plans to keep a Trump-era social-media vetting policy for visa applicants. There are several incidents in which international students were stopped at the border and social-media postings may have played a part.

A “dignity program” proposed by a Republican congresswoman would allow young immigrants brought to the U.S. illegally as children to adjust their status to lawful permanent residency.

A professor in Wisconsin will plead guilty to defrauding international students by falsely telling them they had been admitted to a graduate program and pocketing their tuition dollars.

A Chinese student at the University of Utah was killed in what police are calling a domestic violence situation.

Students at Occidental College are criticizing university leaders for what they say is an inadequate response to a student who sent racist text messages about Asians.

A conservative watchdog group has filed a Freedom of Information Act request to the U.S. Department of Education for information about oversight of foreign funds going to a global center at the University of Pennsylvania named for President Biden.

A nonprofit group with ties to the Chinese government that helps run Chinese-language programs worldwide is suing Western Kentucky University over the closure of its Confucius Institute.

International students in China will be permitted to do limited work while studying, under a new Ministry of Education policy.

The Taliban is urging professors who fled the country to return to Afghanistan.

Indian Institutes of Technology may open branches in the UK.

Colleges in the southern Indian state of Karnataka were closed for three days because of violent clashes set off by a move to prohibit female students from wearing hijabs.

Nicaraguan lawmakers approved legislation allowing the government to take over a half dozen universities it had effectively shut down.

And finally…

For one last time, I wanted to renew my call for readers interested in talking about their experiences as international-education professionals during Covid. I’m exploring the professional and personal impact the pandemic has had on this field and those who work in it. I’m also open to hearing from managers and leaders at colleges and organizations about strategies they have developed to support their colleagues in dealing with the stressors and strains of the past two years. I’ve had some insightful, and moving, conversations over the past few weeks but want to hear even more perspectives. Email me at latitudesnews@gmail.com.

’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.