Photo by Max Kukurudziak

The Biden administration halted the controversial investigation of academics’ China ties, but that’s not the end of the story. Plus, students studying in the U.S. from Ukraine and Russia alike could be affected by Russia’s invasion.

Special protections and severed ties

A broad coalition of organizations is calling on the Biden administration to offer special protections to Ukrainian students, while several members of Congress are suggesting that Russian students be kicked out of the U.S. in retaliation for the invasion of Ukraine.

Meanwhile, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology announced it was severing ties to a high-tech Russian university it helped found.

Nearly 200 higher-ed, humanitarian, religious, and other groups signed a letter asking for Special Student Relief ​​for Ukrainian students, which would provide them with additional flexibility, permit off-campus employment, and prevent them from losing their F-1 visa status. Nearly 2,000 Ukrainian students currently study at American colleges.

The organizations also urged officials to announce Temporary Protected Status for Ukrainians in the U.S., giving work permits and protection from deportation to those who cannot safely return to their home country. 

Students from Russia also could be caught in the tensions. On CNN, Rep. Eric Swalwell, a California Democrat who serves on the House Intelligence Committee, said “kicking every Russian student out of the United States” should “be on the table” in retaliation for the Russian invasion. Another Democratic congressman, Ruben Gallego of Arizona, tweeted his agreement with Swalwell: “These Russian students are the sons and daughters of the richest Russians. A strong message can be sent by sending them home.”

Tensions between the U.S. and Russia have already made it more complicated for Russian students to get visas, and economic sanctions and banking restrictions could affect their ability to make tuition payments. About 5,000 Russian students are enrolled at American colleges.

Miriam Feldblum of the Presidents’ Alliance for Higher Education and Immigration said there must be consequences for Russia’s “horrifying and unacceptable” actions in Ukraine. But, she told me:

“International students should never be used as pawns in any geo-political fight, and this includes Russian or Chinese students. To the contrary, international education is a lifeline to the future, and we should protect, not pillory, international students.” 

There is also uncertainty about how the conflict could affect international research ties. On Friday, MIT moved to end its partnership with Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology, or Skoltech, a graduate research university near Moscow it helped start.

The relationship had long been controversial because of ties between Skoltech’s leaders and Russian President Vladimir Putin, but MIT had renewed its agreement, most recently in 2019. In a statement, the university spoke of the important research conducted with Skoltech but said it was terminating the partnership as “a rejection of the actions of the Russian government in Ukraine.”

In related news:

  • The U.S. Department of State urged Americans to leave Ukraine and Russia, but due to the pandemic, it’s hard to know how large those numbers are. Prior to Covid, about 1,300 Americans studied in Russia each year and about 100 in Ukraine, according to Open Doors.
  • Students on campus across the country rallied and organized vigils in support of Ukraine.
  • Some universities are mobilizing to take in displaced Ukrainian scholars.
  • Article 26 Backpack is encouraging students and scholars in Ukraine to upload and safely store their academic and other documents. 
  • Students and scholars are playing a major role in organizing anti-war protests in Russia.
  • International students studying in Ukraine have been struggling to find safe ways to leave the country.

Are you a Ukrainian student? I want to hear your story. Colleges, how are you supporting students and scholars during the crisis? Do you have students or researchers in Ukraine or Russia? Are there ways in which you are teaching about the conflict into the classroom? I want to hear about all the ways higher ed is responding to the crisis in Ukraine — email me at

The End of the China Initiative

The U.S. Department of Justice is shuttering the China Initiative, its controversial probe of Chinese national-security threats that critics say unfairly targeted academics of Asian descent.

In announcing the end of the Trump-era investigation, Matthew Olsen, assistant attorney general for national security, acknowledged its impact of American researchers and universities. “We have heard that these prosecutions — and the public narrative they create — can lead to a chilling atmosphere for scientists and scholars that damages the scientific enterprise in this country,” he said.

“Safeguarding the integrity and transparency of research institutions is a matter of national security. But so is ensuring that we continue to attract the best and the brightest researchers and scholars to our country from all around the world — and that we all continue to honor our tradition of academic openness and collaboration.”

Olsen said the government would pursue a broader and less-prosecutorial strategy focused on threats beyond just China, including from the governments of Iran, North Korea, and Russia. Here’s more coverage of Olsen’s announcement.

A few more thoughts…

While Olsen recognized concerns that the China Initiative “fueled a narrative of intolerance and bias,” he said his own review of the probe did not find that prejudice led to the grant-fraud cases. But academic and civil-rights communities say officials need to take a closer look at how anti-Asian sentiment may have driven prosecutions — nine out of 10 of those charged were Chinese or Chinese American.

Zhengyu Huang, president of the Committee of 100, a group of prominent Chinese Americans, said “much more work needs to be done to ensure that all cases being prosecuted are based solely on evidence and not on perception.”

APA Justice Task Force called on the Biden administation to continue to engage in a dialogue with Asian American and academic groups:

The work to address racial profiling against Asian Americans is far from over; in fact, it is just beginning. The flawed China Initiative has caused immeasurable damage to victims, and eroded the trust and confidence Asian American and academic communities placed in law enforcement.  

Don’t expect an immediate thaw to the chilling effect of the investigation. Half of Chinese and Chinese American scientists at American research universities surveyed over the summer by the University of Arizona and the Committee of 100 reported feeling “considerable fear or anxiety” that they were being “surveilled” by the U.S. government. Researchers have told me that they did not apply for federal grants or steered clear of international collaborations, worried their background could flag them for scrutiny.

Those apprehensions likely won’t disappear overnight. Anming Hu, a University of Tennessee professor acquitted of China Initiative charges, told Knox News that although he was “encouraged” by the Olsen announcement, researchers would “keep their eyes open” for other tangible steps that the government was moving away from its adversarial approach.

The announcement doesn’t mean the end of prosecutions of academics, but it raises the bar. Critics said the China Initiative was effectively criminalizing researchers’ paperwork errors. Going forward, the department will use broader enforcement tools, such as civil and administrative measures, reserving prosecutions for cases that raise national-security threats. 

The White House science office recently issued government-wide research disclosure guidance.

In his remarks, Olsen said if researchers “voluntarily correct prior material omissions” it would “counsel against” prosecutions, seemingly opening the door for academics to update filings without the most serious penalties.

Not everyone welcomed the news. In a statement, Sen. Tom Cotton, an Arkansas Republican, called the decision “another instance of weakness from an administration more concerned with being politically correct than protecting Americans.”

It’s a reminder that even as the Biden administration stepped back, Congress is preparing to tighten restrictions on international research collaborations — and on a bipartisan basis.

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Notes from AIEA

It was great to see so many familiar faces — or at least the unmasked parts of them — at last week’s Association of International Education Administrators’ meeting. Both formal sessions and informal conversations gave me a lot to chew on, and I’ll have more coverage to come stemming from the conference.

Meanwhile, a few quick observations from New Orleans:

The wounds inflicted by Covid-19 are still fresh. There was a lot of discussion of job cuts that were the result of pandemic budget reductions, leading to worries that international education has lost both longstanding expertise and new talent. Some administrators said the pandemic had exposed the superficiality of support for internationalization among senior leaders at their institutions. Others shared concerns that they, as chief international officer, weren’t always at the table for critical discussions, such as around responses to the China Initiative. This is shaping up to be a pivotal moment for the future of international education.

But a desire for innovation is strong. For all the hand-wringing, it was impossible not to walk away with a sense of excitement. Attendees spoke with me about new models for exchange, the possibilities of virtual education and internships, and experiments in transnational education. Some said the pause on physical collaboration had deepened ties with international partners. As one participant told me, “It’s exciting to hear people talking about looking ahead, about ideas for the future.”

There is new attention on diversity. Perhaps as much as the pandemic itself, the murder of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter protests are leaving their mark on international education. The field is reckoning with its track record on diversity, coming to terms with, as Chrystal George Mwangi of George Mason University put it, no longer being seen strictly as a “do-gooder” but instead as an actor whose decisions affect who experiences and benefits from international education. I look forward to writing more about the hard, but critical, conversations going on around equity and inclusion. 

Were you at AIEA? What did I miss? What struck you as really important threads coming out of the conference? Send me an email — your perspectives help me shape coverage in latitude(s).

Around the Globe

Sen. Charles Grassley, an Iowa Republican and a longtime critic of Optional Practical Training, has sent a letter to the secretary of Homeland Security, questioning a decision to add 22 new fields to those that qualify for the longer work period for STEM majors.

A new bill would exempt California public colleges from an environmental law that could force Berkeley to cap enrollments. Berkeley’s neighbors used the law to challenge enrollments, which could result in fewer international and other out-of-state students

Just-released data show that international applications are up more than 10 percent at Berkeley. The number of international students seeking to study at a UC campus increased 7 percent.

More American students have applied to study at British universities since Brexit.

A former researcher at Duke University and National University of Singapore’s joint medical campus pleaded guilty to spying for Russia .

There is pent-up student demand for education abroad, according to a survey by Terra Dotta.

An Indian court has ordered a Rutgers historian to take down tweets accusing a biographer of Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, a Hindu nationalist politician, of plagarism.

Students in New Zealand may not have received hardship funds meant to help them during the pandemic.

The City University of Hong Kong student union is facing a national-security law investigation.

Congrats to this year’s Simon Award winners: College of Lake County, Kent State, Marist, Northeastern, and Northwestern. 

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And finally…

Some big news: latitude(s) will become an official Chronicle of Higher Education newsletter. 

Beginning March 9 — please note, we’ll be moving to a Wednesday publication date — this newsletter will go out to readers via the Chronicle

This partnership will allow me to continue to bring you essential international-education news and analysis — free of charge to readers. Editorially, expect nothing to change. I promise to always strive to bring you important updates from all over the globe, to give you context and behind-the-scenes insight, and to foster a community committed to international education.

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’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.