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Restriction Proposal Disputed by Colleges

By Eun J. Lee


The White House is currently discussing proposals to restrict university course offerings available to some international students, The Chronicle of Higher Education reported this week. Thus far, college officials have been excluded from these discussions.

Under the proposals, students attending American universities from a list of origin countries would be forbidden from taking courses judged to be potentially helpful in the production of weapons of mass destruction.

“The institutions that produce science and technology are not only sources of solutions and advice, they are also potential targets and means of exploitation for terrorism,” said John H. Marburger III, the president’s science advisor, in an address at the American Association for the Advancement of Science on April 11. “Universities can inadvertently provide materials, skills, and concealment for terrorist operations.”

In addition, there are several other anti-terrorism proposals in state and national legislatures which would effect college students. Members of the MIT community have been making their voices heard on matters important to institutions of higher learning and research.

“President [Charles M.] Vest and others at MIT have been active in Washington to make sure that policymakers are aware of the importance of not overreacting to the current security concerns,” said Dean for Undergraduate Education Robert P. Redwine.

“I think the main message that we’re trying to send to lawmakers is that we would like to work together with them to develop policies that do not impact our open campuses and the ways we pursue research,” said Professor Alice Gast, MIT’s Vice President for Research.

The Immigration and Naturalization Service recently implemented more stringent regulations on international students studying in the U.S. A new regulation that took effect in early April requires all foreign nationals to obtain student visas before they can enroll in an American school. Previously, international students were able to study in U.S. with only tourist or business visas while their student visa requests were pending. The policy change did not require the approval of Congress.

MIT active in Washington talks

Marburger stressed in his address that universities need to think their responsibilities through and advise governments where to draw the line between avoiding terrorist risk and obstructing the processes of education and discovery.

“We’re working hard through our Washington office with groups like the American Association of Universities and the American Council on Education to make sure the government works with universities on these policies,” Gast said.

The MIT Washington Office was established in August 1991 as part of the MIT President’s office to maintain close relations with the federal government. “MIT takes a very strong leadership role in these government relations,” Gast said. “Many legislators turn to us for advice.”

The issue of limiting courses for international students was discussed at Graduate Student Council’s Academics, Research and Careers Meeting yesterday evening.

“Students would like to see MIT’s position on this issue as it is a continuation of similar policies affecting international students that have been brought forward at the Congressional level within the last few months,” said newly elected GSC President Sanith Wijesinghe.

“We are seeking input from senior administrators and MIT’s Washington Office on how best students can contribute their opinion to this new legislature,” Wijesinghe said. “Some ideas include petition drives and letters to Congressional members and representatives.”

Vest could not be reached for comment.

MIT benefits from foreign minds

Despite more stringent immigration regulations on international students, MIT has no plan to change its policies towards its students from foreign countries.

“We’re very supportive of our international students and we feel the MIT community is not complete without them,” Gast said.

“The benefits [from international students] have accrued to the students themselves, to the MIT community, and to the cause of international peace and understanding,” Redwine said. “Whatever restrictions may be put on the participation of international students at MIT, we very much hope that our goal of continuing these benefits will not be compromised.”

Administrators are also actively working to make sure that new policies do not unnecessarily impede on the academic lives of international students.

“We’re concerned about national security, but at the same time we don’t want to alienate international students from the rest of the community,” Gast said.

MIT research policy unchanged

In contrast to the White House proposals, MIT’s policy for academic research does not currently discriminate against foreign citizens.

“Our attitude is that if a student obtains a visa from the State Department, then they’re clear to work on any research on campus,” Gast said. “What we do here is open research, so we don’t see the need for any restrictions of our student access that research. This is a view we share with other universities across the country.”

Administrators say they do not feel that international scholars on campus pose a threat to the community.

“There is little if any evidence that international students have used information acquired at universities in the US to compromise our security,” Redwine said.

“Everyone is concerned about national security and technology getting into the wrong hands,” Gast said. “We feel confident with our international students and scholars office that our international students do not pose a threat to us or the country.”

Students express policy concerns

Students are concerned that the White House’s proposals could have a drastic effect on MIT student life.

“Students expressed concern [at yesterday’s meeting] about not being able to take courses in what have historically been well established graduate programs [such as] nuclear technology, chemical engineering, and biotechnology,” Wijesinghe said. “Since 40 percent of MIT’s graduate students are international, this will have a drastic consequence for faculty to recruit students for research.”

Many also wonder whether such measures will be effective at deterring terrorist acts.

“As we’ve seen from Sept. 11, many different kinds of knowledge can be used to cause mass destruction with little or no education,” said Peter A. Shulman G. “It worries me that national security is being used as an excuse to limit higher education in this country ... this is a personal issue for the MIT community to deal with.”

“It is sad that the U.S. has to generalize the case of terrorism to all internationals,” said Michel A. Rbeiz ’04, an international student from Lebanon. “By taking away civil liberties, the government can’t guarantee that it will prevent all forms of terrorism.”