Students and professors working and studying in foreign countries are finding that the doors of academic freedom are often being nudged closed before them. Poor relations between countries and fears about national security are increasingly affecting the academic life of exchange scholars among nations, say experts. The problem involves Americans who are doing academic research abroad as well as foreign students coming to the United States.
Concern over the growing role that politics is playing in the exchange of students and information between countries was sounded loud and clear last week by a group of writers, educators, and diplomats gathered at the United Nations to discuss the state of international scholarship exchange.
The lack of foreign-language study in the United States, the low number of American students studying in developing regions, and problems faced by foreign students in the US were some of the problems cited during the day-long conference.
It was part of a year-long bicentennial celebration of the University of the State of New York, during which scholars and educators are gathering monthly at various sites to discuss specific challenges facing the academic community.
According to Gordon M. Ambach, commissioner of education for New York, ''The whole question of the exchange process is a much greater concern for nations today. They are paying closer attention to who goes, and to what their purposes are.''
Some countries have begun to place limits on what foreign students may study, what kind of research they may conduct, and even where they may travel, it was noted.
Richard Krasno, president of the Institute of International Education, says the growing presence of politics in international academic exchanges is experienced by Americans attempting to study in many countries, as well as by students coming to the US. He cited the case last March of Libyans studying here who were barred from classes on nuclear physics and aviation.
But George Kennan, former US ambassador to the Soviet Union, said experience had taught him that ''there are few things that should not be open to foreign scholars.'' He wondered aloud if the relationship between the US and the USSR might be less bleak now if there had been more cooperation in the past.
Mr. Kennan said he thought the US should accept as many foreign scholars as possible.
''People are impressed by a good example,'' he said, ''and I think they will be impressed with what we are.''
Somewhat less enthusiastic was historian and author Barbara Tuchman, who said she was unconvinced that ''international exchanges achieve the end sought - an increase in understanding between people and nations.'' Mrs. Tuchman said that no matter what students learn here, they often have to return to countries where strict controls on work, travel, and speech are an everyday part of life.
While no one doubted the value of having American students complete part of their academic careers abroad, there was some question as to whether American students were ignoring some areas of the world that deserve increased attention.
New York Times columnist James Reston said that of 30,000 American students studying abroad last year, most went to Europe, while there were 2,000 in Asia, 1,600 in Latin America, and fewer than 200 in Africa. Since world economic and power shifts are expected to increasingly focus attention on the Pacific basin, Mr. Reston said, he wondered if American students studying abroad were ''going in the wrong direction.''