Getting wonky edition

Student-visa news, more scrutiny of foreign ties, and the latest on Yale-NUS

What’s Too Much?

I know you guys love it when I get all wonky about visa policy. 

So, let me tell you the latest news out of the Department of Homeland Security: Under new visa guidance issued quietly last week, students participating in optional practical training will now be required to demonstrate a direct link between their field of study and the work they are doing on OPT. And it will be up to college officials to review and confirm the link, a new responsibility.

In and of itself, the new charge isn’t that big of a deal. Much of the grumbling I’ve heard is that it’s one more task colleges and schools are being asked to shoulder, part of a trend of outsourcing the day-to-day operations of the student-visa system.

At the same time, educators are getting the sense that the federal government is increasingly looking over their shoulder. Colleges are being asked to certify the relevance of students’ OPT positions, but, they wonder, will they be second-guessed? Will they be penalized if federal officials later dispute the connection? What, too, about students in majors, like general studies, in which there isn’t a job that neatly corresponds with their degree? Many academics would argue that the critical reasoning and communications skills that are the core of the liberal arts prepare graduates for any number of fields. Will the government see it that way?

Beyond the additional responsibility, though, is the feeling that this is yet another hoop that colleges – and more importantly, students – have to jump through. Look, OPT as conceived was meant to give students hands-on experience related to their classroom learning, and the government has every right to set the rules of the road. But as I’ve written before, the accumulation of new regulatory requirements and expectations can begin to feel onerous. 

In the past month, the British government announced plans to make it easier for international students to stay longer and work after graduation. From America, the headlines have been about students turned back at the border, visa backlogs, and tightening rules. Could the next one more thing become one more thing too much?

To go really wonky, NAFSA dives deep into the implications of the new policy guidance. Meanwhile, did someone forward you this newsletter? Sign up to get latitude(s) in your inbox every Monday morning.

A Global Debate on Academic Freedom

I weighed in a couple of weeks ago on the controversy over a canceled short-term course on dissent at Yale-NUS college, the liberal-arts institution jointly founded by Yale and the National University of Singapore. Since then, Yale has released the results of a review that found no violations of academic freedom in the decision to shut down the course. “The evidence does not suggest any violations of academic freedom or open inquiry,” Peter Salovey, Yale’s president, said in a statement.

It’s probably fair to say that Yale’s decision didn’t necessarily end the debate. In a series of Facebook posts, the playwright who organized the course accused Yale and Yale-NUS of “scapegoating” him. Professors back in New Haven, however, remained critical. One of them, Jim Sleeper, a lecturer in political science, emailed me: 

People have been a bit slow to understand that what worries faculty critics of the Yale-NUS venture most isn’t a likely clash of Singapore’s values and ours but – with the U.S. Department of Education’s repressive investigations of universities – an all-too-smooth convergence.

A faculty member at Yale-NUS also reached out with an on-the-ground perspective:

All of the activities that were planned – except for three hours of sign-making, which has no educational benefit – are done all the time at Yale-NUS. The dissident activists and intellectuals who were scheduled to be part of the program have spoken numerous times at our college – in fact, our college is often the only institution in Singapore that will host them....I was dubious about Yale-NUS when I came here, but it’s proved to be an incredible institution. As such, it’s sad to see this fake “controversy” besmirch its name.

More broadly, I heard from a number of people who questioned whether it’s appropriate to apply American notions of academic freedom to institutions abroad.

From Richard Edelstein, who has studied cross-border institutions:

As you know, the issue of academic freedom has been at the center of debates about Yale-NUS since the very beginning and rightfully so. This issue is fundamental for universities in most western countries and for those universities modeled after the historically great European and American universities. What is less clear is the actual meaning of academic freedom as it has been defined in different times and in different national contexts. 

Former president of the State Higher Education Executive Officers (and fellow baseball fan) George Pernsteiner picks up the theme:

I am trying to understand a distinction between academic freedom (defined here as the freedom to choose and explore any topic or direction in instruction and research) and freedom of speech/expression. I think we (I?) often conflate the two in discussions of academic freedom.

The United States doesn’t have unfettered academic freedom, Pernsteiner continues:

Despite our protestations to the contrary, the U.S. even now is restrictive both legally and practically. The bans on using federal funds for research into gun violence or stem cell research are perhaps the most well known of the legal restrictions. In an academic environment whose quest for new knowledge is fueled largely by federal grants and contracts, those kinds of restrictions matter. 

Ben Waxman, the CEO of Intead, an international-education marketing company, asked at what cost do American colleges not engage:

This is sounding a lot like the West’s vaunted, open-minded and culturally inclusive academic leaders are anything but. Bridging cultural gaps is hard and requires perseverance in the face of the challenges. Those challenges don’t just melt away based on smiley handshakes and good intentions. And inclusiveness doesn’t happen without sustained efforts to build bridges in foreign environments. Let’s not take our ball and go home because others won’t play by our rules. For goodness sake, let’s keep working at this and maintain the dialogues with those who are different from us. These cross-border partnerships and the thorny challenges they bring are so very important.

I want latitude(s) to be a place for conversation and dialogue. Have a response to a piece I’ve written here? Think I’ve missed something? Send me an email at or find me on Twitter.

Another University’s Foreign Ties Under Review

Yet another college is under investigation for foreign gifts and contracts. The U.S. Department of Education has asked the University of Maryland to provide records of revenue related to the governments of or businesses in China, Qatar, and Russia.

Maryland is the fifth major university that’s been revealed to be under scrutiny for its foreign ties, joining Cornell, Georgetown, Rutgers, and Texas A&M. A spokeswoman for the university told the Washington Post that the institution was working to rectify gaps in its reporting of overseas revenue:

“Once the university learned that we were not reporting this information, we worked quickly to come into compliance...We plan to work with federal officials in a transparent and timely manner to fully resolve these issues.”

The heightened scrutiny has alarmed some in higher ed, who say the government has not been fully clear about what needs to be reported, and how.

Around the Globe

Higher-ed associations have submitted a brief to the U.S. Supreme Court, backing the continuation of a federal program for undocumented students brought here as kids.

Some international students are considering deferring their enrollment in British universities to try to take advantage of expanded post-study work benefits.

More than 60 faculty members at Duke University have joined the chorus of voices expressing concern that a federal investigation into a joint Middle East studies program with the University of North Carolina could chill teaching and research.

Clear your electronic devices of sensitive or confidential research before crossing international borders, a Canadian faculty association warns.

In an editorial, UCLA’s student newspaper says the university needs to do a better job meeting the needs of international students.

Two Indonesian university students have died in protests over a new law that limits the powers of a commission to curtail corruption.

A Turkish scientist was sentenced to prison for publishing a study that linked pollution to higher rates of cancer in the western part of the country.

Oxford cut ties with Huawei earlier this year, but the controversial Chinese company has bought a stake in a firm that commercializes the university’s research.

Read this insightful thread on Chinese students studying abroad and nationalism:

And finally…

The Syrian civil war could be robbing an entire generation of an education: The Christian Science Monitor on how lack of funds and few spots for young refugees are keeping even top Syrian students from earning a college degree.

And if this report seems disjointed, apologies. I’m writing from Los Angeles – or more precisely, from LAX, amid endless flight delays – where I came to watch the Washington Nationals play the Dodgers. This has absolutely nothing to do with international education, but here’s why this playoff game carried so much sentimental weight for me. 

Have a great week...and go Nats!

’Til next week – Karin

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