- Monitoring Chinese students and scholars could violate academic freedom and due process and impede ongoing research, said nearly two dozen higher education, free speech and citizens' rights groups in a written statement this week.
- They were responding to claims highlighted in a June NPR report that FBI officials have urged U.S. colleges to monitor students and scholars from Chinese research institutions to guard against academic theft and espionage.
- Tracking people "solely based on their country of origin ... should raise alarms in a democracy," said the statement, which comes as colleges increase scrutiny of federally funded research and as the U.S. Education Department probes institutions over how they report foreign gifts.
The concerns highlighted in the statement echo those of several universities that have expressed dismay about the atmosphere on their campuses in light of heightened rhetoric about the alleged theft of academic intellectual property by foreign scholars, mainly from China, as a threat to national security.
Yet the stakes are high for colleges seeking to address these concerns. There were some 340,000 Chinese students at U.S. universities as of July 2018, and they comprise a third of all international students in the country.
Reports the FBI advised institutions to monitor students and scholars have further alarmed the higher education community.
Lynn Pasquerella, president of the Association of American Colleges & Universities, one of the signatories to the statement, told Education Dive in an interview that the FBI advisory "is overreaching," contributes to "a climate of fear and mistrust" and hinders knowledge creation and the free exchange of ideas.
"This kind of advisory puts institutions in a position of moral distress where they feel they have no choice ... in turning over files on what researchers are doing," she said.
The statement, which was put forward by free speech group Pen America, acknowledged that the Chinese government "is notorious for its aggressive use of surveillance," but that the U.S. must caution against mimicking the "very tactics it professes to reject."
As it is, at least three institutions have started audits and similar scrutiny of projects that could be vulnerable to foreign influence. And in the past few months, hundreds of international students have been facing untoward delays in getting student visas or federal authorization for Optional Practical Training (OPT), a program that allows international students to work in the U.S. Administrators say this is due to heightened scrutiny by visa-issuing agencies.
The leaders of dozens of universities, including Harvard, Johns Hopkins, MIT, Princeton, Rutgers and Yale have expressed concern over the visa delays and the targeting of international students from certain countries, saying they put U.S. institutions at risk of losing access to a critical supply of students.
Already, enrollment of new international students at U.S. colleges is on the decline, falling 6.6% year-over-year in 2017-18, according to data from the Institute of International Education. Changes in the visa process and the country's social and political environment are the primary drivers, college officials say. The idea that international students feel unwelcome was among the top factors.
Colleges are using various strategies to attract and retain international students. For instance, Eastern Michigan University and others have lowered tuition for this group. Meanwhile, Dartmouth College and Yale University have created courses that qualify students for Curricular Practical Training authorization, allowing them to participate in internships and other work experiences related to their field of study without having to wait for federal OPT approval.
In 2016, the University of Washington introduced a global business certificate whose participants can apply for one year of OPT upon completion. Several business schools have sought STEM designations for their programs to extend the length of time graduates can stay in the U.S. to work.