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
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
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. …