Open Doors? ; Proposals to Track Foreign Students and Restrict Visas Are Prompting Concerns That American Higher Education Will Lose Its Trademark Openness

Article excerpt

Two weeks before terrorists flew airliners into the World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon, an odd e-mail from overseas popped into Dan Seufert's computer at Daniel Webster College. The sender wanted to visit the Nashua, N.H., school, but needed a formal invitation to get a visa to enter the United States.

"The official invitation means that your Daniel Webster College is inviting us officially," the awkward e-mail read. "I hope to get the visa easily to meet your goodself."

In hindsight, Mr. Seufert, director of external relations, says he now wonders "if the writer really was a woman from India." Because Daniel Webster College trains pilots, and some of the Sept. 11 terrorists had flight training at American schools, Seufert is nagged by questions: Might the e-mail writer have been a terrorist, or someone seeking a document to sell on the black market for use in acquiring a US student visa?

In the halls of Congress, some are questioning whether US higher education - long known for opening doors to the best and brightest of all nations - is a bit too open. Others are concerned that if the country tightens lab research and student-visa requirements, it will shoot itself in the foot and squelch the cultural and economic dynamo that US higher education has become.

"Our science and engineering fields depend heavily on foreign students and foreign exchange programs," says Lawrence Faulkner, president of the University of Texas at Austin. "If we were to close down this channel in a heavy-handed way, it would be to [the country's] detriment."

Perhaps the most intense federal focus is on student visas. Last Wednesday, Immigration and Naturalization Service agents in San Diego arrested 10 young people from the Middle East who were not properly enrolled in college or had overstayed their visas. Officials said it was the first step in a growing national crackdown on student visas.

That may be just the beginning. Congress is also weighing proposed moratoriums - lasting up to nine months - on granting student visas, a move that could throw a monkey wrench into university research efforts, in which foreign students play a major role nationwide.

The backbone of graduate research

"We oppose restrictions, limits on student visas of any kind," says Glen Gaulton, vice dean for research and research training at the University of Pennsylvania. "The quality of research would suffer. Yes, we could bring in more domestic technicians. But our research would slow down. They're just not as highly motivated as the foreign students."

Students from abroad have become the backbone of graduate research in American higher education. In the post-Sputnik era of the 1960s, Dr. Gaulton says, the best American universities recognized the global supply of talent and began to open their doors to foreign graduate students. Now, US higher education has become reliant upon them, he says.

A record 547,867 international undergraduate and graduate students were enrolled at US campuses last year, a 6.4 percent rise over the previous year and the largest jump since 1980, reports the Institute of International Education.

But more "help wanted" signs are springing up.

"You've got a tremendous shortage already of research assistants at most top labs," Gaulton says. "We cannot attract enough domestic graduate students. We've got to get them overseas."

Mutlu Ozdogan is a Turkish graduate research assistant in Boston University's geology department. He is working on groundbreaking satellite remote-sensing technology, and has a visa that should be good for several more years.

Even so, he worries that it may be hard for him to reenter the US after an upcoming research trip to the United Arab Emirates. He is not reassured by the crackdown in San Diego.

"There's no place in the [visa] application about my research," he says. …