In a visit to Yale today, U.S. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge outlined changes President Bush’s administration has made to visa policies for international students at a luncheon for top university presidents who are on campus this week for an Association of American Universities conference.

Ridge said the Homeland Security Department, along with other government agencies, has been working with university presidents to review and reform U.S. visa-granting policies that affect graduate and undergraduate study in the United States for foreign students. Since last fall, the federal government decreased students’ waiting period for background checks from about three months to about three weeks and enhanced communication with U.S. consular offices abroad, Assistant Homeland Security Secretary Stewart Verdery said in an interview today during a visit to New Haven.

Ridge, who spoke at a lunch at Berkeley College today that was closed to the press, said the federal government has been working to protect the nation while still attracting international students.

“We want the doors to be open wide,” Ridge told the News as he left Berkeley. “We want to make it easier for graduate and undergraduate students to get into the country.”

Verdery said the changes to the visa policies are part of a wide policy review that the Homeland Security Department began last fall after universities, corporations and scientists complained that security measures implemented after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks were preventing students and professionals from entering the country. He said policy changes made last year have expedited background checks for international students.

“We’ve heard the message loud and clear from university presidents that our policies were having a negative impact on students,” Verdery said. “Today’s foreign student may be tomorrow’s foreign leader, and having them exposed to U.S. policy, culture and society is a plus.”

The visa reform issue has topped Yale President Richard Levin’s agenda over the past year and this spring Levin and other administrators pressured the Bush administration to reform the visa process.

Yale College Dean Peter Salovey said he was encouraged by the federal government’s actions and thinks the new policies will benefit students.

“I think things have gone a lot better in the past year,” Salovey said. “We have a very responsive partner in the federal government.”