Fred Kowal: Higher Ed Suffers Under Trump Visa Restrictions

Mar 1, 2019

Colleges and universities have long been a destination for international scholars, who have brought their intellect, cultural diversity and global insights to campuses across the country.

That’s changing—and not in a good way.

The Trump administration is making it more difficult for professors and graduate students to come here and enrich our academic programs. A stricter and inexplicably more rigid scrutiny of visa applications is creating real hardship for these international applicants and the campuses that hired them to teach and conduct research.

As the president of United University Professions, the union that represents the faculty and staff at SUNY, I am limited when it comes to assisting foreign-born members of this union if they are caught in a visa delay.

There is also little that SUNY can do, other than to inform employees about visa regulations and requirements before they come to the U.S. or make a return visit to their native countries. It is with increasing frustration that I hear of faculty who have hit snag after snag in what should have been a routine visa application.

For example, a tenure-track professor and Chinese national who has been in the U.S. for years was recently unable to return from a visit to China last summer until well after classes had started. He still has no idea why his visa was flagged.

Two other foreign-born SUNY professors had to wait so long for background checks to be completed that one of them arrived six weeks later than planned. The other postponed the start of his job until the following semester.

We believe that dozens of these incidents have occurred in the SUNY system since the Trump administration began sending strong signals that it was about to get a lot tougher to travel to America to work and study if you were a national of … well, so many countries now that it would take too long to list them.

The visa issue has become so acute that the American Federation of Teachers has joined a number of colleges across the nation in a lawsuit against the Trump administration on this very issue. The suit seeks to block the start of new rules that would impose travel bans on international visa holders for minor or unintentional violations on their applications, such as failing to update an address.

While UUP is not a party to the lawsuit, we are an AFT affiliate and we support the AFT in its call for a rational balance between security and overreach.

In the 1930s and early 1940s, hundreds of German scientist scholars fled Nazi Germany. Dozens found new homes in America, where they joined the faculty of some of this country’s top universities. Among them was Albert Einstein.

In the first two tumultuous years of this administration, which has veered from one poorly thought-out immigration policy to another, it’s tempting to wonder how many modern-day Einsteins may have been discouraged or blocked from coming to the U.S. to teach, to study and perhaps to stay and become citizens, where their knowledge could benefit us all?

The unreasonable tightening of this process is also wreaking havoc with our academic programs, where deans and department chairs realize that uncertainty is the only certainty for international scholars—including whether they can return in time for the start of classes.

SUNY campuses must cover the courses these academics were scheduled to teach, which means extra costs, extra work for other faculty, and incredible disruption for students.

This union certainly understands and supports the federal government’s need to thoroughly vet anyone applying for a visa. But a better approach to the visa process is a must.

Otherwise, our nation’s colleges and universities risk losing the culturally and intellectually diverse balance that an international faculty contributes. And that would be a loss for the whole country, which can only be as great as the sum of its many wonderful, diverse and, yes, often foreign-born parts.

Dr. Fred Kowal is President of the 35,000 member United University Professions, which represents faculty on 29 New York State Campuses. UUP is an affiliate of NYSUT, The American Federation of Teachers, The National Education Association and the AFL-CIO.

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