Foreign students too valuable to ban from higher ed

In his administration’s most recent misdirected and futile policy change, President George W. Bush proposed banning some international students from studying in certain fields in the United States. He released a presidential directive on homeland security that states the government shall implement measures prohibiting international students from receiving education and training in sensitive areas, “including areas of study with direct application to the development and use of weapons of mass destruction.”

To determine what specific fields will be off limits and to whom, the president ordered “an interagency working group” be formed. This committee has been assembled with government officials from the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy, the Office of Homeland Security and the Justice Department, to name a few. Yet glaringly absent is anyone representing higher education institutions, which college officials rightly see as a significant oversight.

Universities are perhaps in the best position to advise on the exposure to sensitive technologies foreign students encounter. They are also in the best position to remind government officials of the contributions international students make to research. Foreign thinkers have raised the standard of living by creating everything from Prozac to rocket fuel cells.

These students certainly have a profoundly positive impact on our economy. They’ve contributed ideas and research for technologies that have increased productivity and raised the nation’s gross domestic product. Without them, there will be severe erosion of the U.S. human capital base.

Also, universities will need to address that many fields of research don’t receive enough interest from American students and would be desolate without international students. M.R.C. Greenwood, chancellor of the University of California-Santa Cruz, spoke at a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and noted native-born students “are not sufficiently interested” in some fields.

Without foreign students, he said, those fields would languish, suffering from a lack of future research and faculty members. MIT’s enrollment, for example, would be decimated by a loss of international students. Foreigners comprise 37.2 percent of all graduate students. They come from nearly everywhere across the globe, including China, Canada, the United Kingdom, India, Iran, Morocco, Syria and Israel.

Most important, academic officials must be given a voice in the policy creation process so they can stress the best way to stop terrorists: Don’t let them in the country. Although plainly evident, it’s important to reiterate to government officials that academia isn’t the place to screen terrorists.

Banning all students from countries unfortunate enough to have maniacal governments will unjustly target great minds and will unreasonably deprive academia, the economy and society of highly productive individuals. It is important the government recognizes this, and it can start by accepting the help of those most knowledgeable of these situations – academic officials.