As the process for getting an American education gets increasingly difficult for citizens of other countries, international students are beginning to turn away from U.S. study in droves. Foreign applications to U.S. graduate schools, for instance, are down 28 percent this year, according to numbers released by the Council of Graduate Schools last week; at the Yale Graduate School, applications from international students are down 19 percent. Although many factors, including the increasing competitiveness of graduate schools abroad, have played a role in the decline, a major problem for international students has been ever-stricter guidelines governing the issuing of student visas.
Appropriately troubled, University President Richard Levin took a stand on the issue over the summer. He lobbied the Bush administration for such common-sense but badly needed reforms as issuing visas to students for the entire length of study in the United States, improving the background check process, and simplifying the visa renewal process. Levin has become quite adept at picking his battles, and, this time, he has picked a perfect one. It’s an issue that affects current students and faculty, an issue that will have very real consequences for the whole nation, and an issue on which Levin can speak with authority, using his high visibility and the Yale name to lend weight to the cause. But, as he did during the Early Action debate, Levin must also work to make real change, not merely urge it on.
Since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, travel to the United States has become, justifiably, more difficult. But some of the restrictions on student visas are so extensive and unfair that they amount to little more than jingoism disguised as national security. Particularly troubling is that the restrictions focus on students, who are coming to the United States for a liberal education and a positive cultural exchange that goes in both directions.
International students should not have to fear going home because of worries that they might be detained when trying to return. But everyone, not just foreign students, should care about the student visa issue. It goes without saying (though we will anyway), that without the diversity international students bring, Yale is a much less interesting place. But it goes further than that, too. Without international students, Yale’s mission as a University suffers. Chinese history is a lot more interesting when it’s TAed by a Chinese citizen. The intellectual products of the University are a lot more exciting when produced by the best minds in the world, not merely the best minds who were granted U.S. visas.
It’s not enough for Levin to just condemn the current system, and we hope he is active in changing it, the way he was with the early admissions process. Levin should intervene in the cases of Yale students who are detained or stranded in their home countries, unable to get back to New Haven. If Levin is doing this already — and if he is, he has been reluctant to discuss it — we applaud him. Unlike the campaign to reform the policy, however, Levin’s efforts on behalf of individual Yale students should remain out of the spotlight.
If we want cultural dialogue and intellectual excellence to continue at Yale and in the United States, we must reform repressive student visa policies. Few are better equipped to lead this fight than Levin, and we hope he fights to win. We can’t afford to lose.