Student monitoring not part of U mission

The threat of terrorism has prompted the government to explore new ways to protect its citizens from threats. Most of these threats are believed to be from foreigners who enter the United States legally, as many of the terrorists who executed the Sept. 11 attacks did. This perception – accurate or not – has produced a new xenophobia that is manifesting itself in new and troubling ways.

The Minnesota Legislature is considering a bill requiring the reporting of the names, addresses and academic status of all international students. The legislation would also require the University to report international students who fail to attend classes.

This legislation ostensibly seeks to protect Americans from potential terrorists. But this legislation raises serious questions – both logistical and ideological.

Will the University force professors to take attendance in every class? Would they be forced to single out international students? Will international students be subjected to intrusive questioning from law enforcement simply because they have chosen to pursue their education here? Will the state pay for the costs associated with developing a notification process? In the worst possible case, what will prevent a savvy terrorist from dodging suspicion by diligently attending class?

These questions address the potential impact that such a law would have on the University’s ability to fulfill its mission to foster a learning environment. Subjecting international students to strict scrutiny and potential harassment might have a chilling effect on the willingness and desire of foreign students to attend the University. The idea of attending a university that believes they represent a potential threat will make the University less inviting to international students. These students help enrich the educational environment of all students, and to lose them would be detrimental to the University and all its students. International students are at the heart of U.S. engineering and technological dominance. Deterring their attendance at the University would not only limit the perspectives expressed in the classroom but would also seriously harm the University’s cutting-edge scientific research programs.

It is not the University’s responsibility to work as an agent of law enforcement. This proposed legislation effectively makes the University an active participant in police activities. This is a role wholly inappropriate for the University, and administrators should be wary of any connection between the University and law enforcement. This is particularly true because the relationship will be one-sided. That the University does not even know how the government plans to use the information provided is disconcerting. Along with this ignorance is impotence. The University will have no control on how the information will be used. Will students be expelled because they missed a class? The chilling effect of students and faculty seeing their own institution joining in the wholesale branding of entire nationalities and fields of study with a scarlet “T” is in all reality boundless.

Such a prediction might seem extreme. Requiring information on international students might seem to some a benign request by the government seeking to prevent another terrorist attack. Given that some of the Sept. 11 terrorists entered the United States on student visas, it seems logical to target international students. But establishing any relationship between the University and law enforcement can lead to disturbing consequences.

As civil liberties – particularly the right to privacy – are being suspended by the government, it is not unreasonable to consider future violations when examining new policy. In the past five months the government has limited civil liberties in ways unthinkable before Sept. 11. Attorney-client privilege is no longer guaranteed. The attorney general has called any individuals speaking against the government “terrorists.” Polls have repeatedly found large numbers of Americans willing to sacrifice their liberties for protection from terrorism, with many even saying their fellow citizens should not be allowed to criticize the president and that Arab-Americans should be required to carry special identification.

In this case can students be guaranteed monitoring will be limited to foreign students? Should it be deemed “in the interest of national security,” the government could demand lists of students who have written papers expressing “un-American” viewpoints. Students studying chemistry or engineering could be targeted because their interests make them “potential terrorists.” The McCarthy “red scare” was highlighted by attacks on the freewheeling debate that is central to a college education and often leads students to consider ideas many Americans would summarily reject. Once the anti-terrorism campaign begins sifting through higher education in search of suspicious characters, will a nation rallying ’round the flag really keep the government from expanding its inquiry to every part of the ivy-clad institutions where that rallying is notoriously slow to occur?

If the government feels the need to monitor international students because they are deemed to represent a potential threat, a mechanism already exists to do so. The Immigration and Naturalization Service – which processes student visas – is the agency designed to protect the country from threats. Assistance from the University might make its job easier. But the potential abuses of such assistance outweigh any benefits it might provide.

The University has an opportunity to speak out on this bill before it is forced to comply. Students, faculty and administrators alike must show lawmakers they will not sacrifice the well-being of this University in the face of a vague threat.