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Academia becomes target for new security laws

Foreign students have helped propel the research for which US universities are famous. New security concerns could limit their ability to contribute.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / September 24, 2002

When William Stwalley got word this summer about what had happened to his foreign graduate students, the usually mild-mannered physics professor could barely keep himself in his chair. He was livid.

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Just over a year ago, he had traveled to Beijing to interview candidates for the University of Connecticut's graduate research program in physics this fall. But of the nine students accepted into the program, all were denied a student visa by the US State Department.

In the past, most applicants got a green light. But since Sept. 11, visa "horror stories" have popped up at universities nationwide, many say.

Such snafus may seem unremarkable in the wake of intensified concerns about foreigners entering the US under false pretenses. But they are just the most visible sign of a deeper shift taking place in higher education as the nation pushes for more safety and security in a post-9/11 world.

Academia is suddenly finding itself a central target of new security laws and regulations. To some, the greater scrutiny is natural, given that universities are home to many foreign students and much potentially sensitive research. But as fall semester gets under way, university scientists worry that freedom of inquiry, open access, and internationalization – long valued in US higher education – are at risk.

They say such security measures, though well intentioned, could undermine the free flow of intellectual exchange – both on campus and with researchers abroad – that has made US higher education a huge winner internationally. Tight security could also slow the work of labs that rely on foreign students as researchers or that have long-established ties with foreign counterparts.

"We're seeing a fundamental clash of values between university openness and national security interested in clamping down," says Eugene Skolnikoff, professor emeritus of political science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "There's this push by government, saying, 'We've got to keep information out of the wrong hands.' Universities are essentially being asked to exclude foreign students from some projects."

One observer points to dozens of bills proposed in Congress since Sept. 11 with features that restrict higher education. The White House has its own plans, too. Key developments include:

• A category of "sensitive information" being developed mainly for nonclassified, government-owned research. Some worry it could easily be expanded to include other government-funded university research.

• The Bioterrorism Preparedness Act – passed in June – which mandates tighter scrutiny and background checks for microbiologists working with any of 36 pathogens on the US list of "select agents."

• A government panel to review visa applications of foreign students applying for advanced study in fields including lasers, high-performance metals, navigation and guidance systems, nuclear engineering, biotechnology, and missile propulsion.

Stunting basic research

About 550,000 foreign students study in the US – double the number from 15 years ago – and about half of US engineering PhDs are foreign-born. Such restrictions will sharply curb today's influx of foreign graduate students, stunting the basic research that undergirds America's technology-driven economy, some argue.

"We can't fill our own schools with people from the US," says Bruce Alberts, president of the National Academy of Sciences. "They're just not coming through the system, not willing to work that hard. Higher education has been one of our greatest exports. If we give foreign graduate students the impression they're not welcome or they are second-class citizens, then we'll repel a lot of that talent."