All Harvard applicants are accustomed to waiting by mailboxes, but long after receiving his acceptance letter, Kooi L. Pang was still looking for envelopes.
The Malaysian masters candidate at the Graduate School of Design (GSD) got his student visa three months later than he expected. Ultimately, the document arrived just in time for Pang to make it to Cambridge on the last day of add-drop period in the fall of 2002.
Pang’s visa application was caught in a freeze by the U.S. consulate—one of several backlogs and delays that came about as legislation designed to protect the country from foreign terrorism came into effect.
Pang says the close call frightened him so much that he didn’t leave the country for more than a year afterward. He was so frustrated during the months when his visa application was pending that he nearly threw in the Harvard towel entirely, he says.
“This visa thing really made me not want to come back to school at all,” he says.
Pang’s predicament isn’t unique—and neither is his response.
Recent backlogs and red-tape jungles have made study in the United States increasingly difficult for some students—particularly those coming from Middle Eastern and East Asian countries—who find themselves caught between deadlines.
And now what was once international administrators’ worst fear is becoming reality: Some of the world’s top scholars are beginning to favor universities in other, more accessible countries.
Harvard’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences (GSAS) has reported a 15-percent drop in the number of foreign applications it received this year. And considering that the number of international graduate applications nationwide declined by 32 percent over the past year—affecting 90 percent of graduate programs, according to a survey by the Council of Graduate Schools—this is more likely a trend than a fluke.
The possibility of losing Harvard’s international community—comprised of 3,500 students and 2,000 other scholars who as of three years ago were the majority of the University’s postdoctoral fellows—has been enough to incite a response from Harvard’s highest office.
Last month, University President Lawrence H. Summers wrote letters to Secretary of State Colin Powell and Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security Tom Ridge ’67. Summers cited the recent drop in applications as evidence that new visa procedures established after Sept. 11 are persuading the best and the brightest to seek education elsewhere.
“If the visa process remains complicated and filled with delays, we risk losing some of our most talented scientists and compromising our country’s position at the forefront of technological innovation,” Summers wrote.
For international institutions like Harvard and its peers, regulations established in the name of national security have meant months of extra work for administrators. And in spite of these efforts, some say, barriers erected in the wake of Sept. 11 are turning away the world’s top scholars.
GETTING IN AFTER GETTING IN
Congress and the White House put new pressure on the visa processing system following Sept. 11. But it wasn’t until the summer of 2002, when scholars abroad first planned to join their classes in the United States, that students—and the administrators who helped to bring them into the country—first began feeling shockwaves from the new procedures.
Consulars advised of delays in visa processing of up to three or four weeks. But as backlog dragged on for months, students like Pang faced the reality of not being allowed to enter the country in time for classes.
Pang says that during a decade of work and study in the United States, he never had to wait more than 10 days to update his visa.
After leaving the country in 2001 to spend a bit of time back in Malaysia, he applied to design programs in the United States and England. When the GSD accepted him, he turned down other offers and made plans to travel to Cambridge late in the summer of 2002.
When Pang’s first day of class passed months later, he was still in Malaysia, waiting for his visa stamp.
“There was no word back from the visa counselor for the longest time,” he says. Government officials eventually told him that a “visa-issuing freeze” prevented any student visas being issued to Malaysian scholars. “[The U.S.] just stopped issuing visas for a couple of months,” he says.
Panicked as the first day of classes drew nearer, Pang began e-mailing administrators at the GSD. “There was really nothing they could do,” he says. And the only step the GSD might have taken, he adds, it did not. “I was really hoping to get deferred,” he says.
Pang contemplated trying to get re-accepted into one of the British programs he had turned down. Luckily for Pang—unlike about a dozen other students who experienced severe visa delays that year—the long-awaited document arrived in time.
THE BIGGER PICTURE
Backlogs in the visa program continue to delay students—about 10 students missed the beginning of the term last fall.
But visa delays are only one of several new challenges to the nation’s international community that has arisen in the wake of Sept. 11.
According to those who have been monitoring the issue since its inception, while still onerous, the process has become more understandable and easier to monitor since that disastrous fall of 2002.
“The process for the students was certainly not without interruption, but it did not rise to the level of our worst fears and it’s seemed a little more transparent than last year’s,” Kevin Casey, Harvard’s senior director for federal and state relations, said in the fall.
Knowing what to expect meant that Harvard administrators were able to take several steps to ensure that as few visa applications as possible were lost in the bureaucratic shuffle, said Harvard International Office (HIO) Director Sharon Ladd. In some cases, she said, this meant talking with the government directly to follow up on specific cases.
Dialogue between the government and academia has been steady as the university has struggled with these issues.
Casey has been working with the Association of American Universities (AAU), an organization including more than 60 of Harvard’s peer institutions that lobby for similar ends in Washington.
Since Sept. 11, he says, keeping the international students’ pathways to Harvard open has been near the top of the organization’s docket.
For most Washington representatives of Harvard’s peers, visa delays were not the most pressing issue under criticism.
For the international offices that handle most students, in fact, the compounding of woes registering foreign students after Sept. 11 was epitomized by the Student Exchange Visitor Information System, or SEVIS, designed as the first nationwide computer database of international students.
Congress first proposed such a program in 1996, but it drew sharp criticism from the higher education community. After the 2001 terrorist attacks, it was moved off of the bureaucratic back burner.
From the start, problems plagued the national SEVIS database.
Technical glitches with the computerized database itself caused students’ records to disappear or to be associated with the wrong school, users of a pilot program complained. And because the system was used to screen for dubious records, the bug-ridden system could have brought hundreds of legitimate students under scrutiny by federal investigators.
Scholars who were not included in the database, or who were registered incorrectly, would be barred from entering the country for registration in September.
Moving thousands of records from the old paper system to the database required months of grind work. Computer systems had to undergo thousands of dollars worth of updates in order to be compliant with new software. And, most frighteningly for international administrators nationwide, schools had to undertake this overhaul on a very tight schedule.
The records for all of Harvard’s international students and scholars and their dependents—more than 5,500 separate collections of files—had to be entered in the new database by Aug. 1, fewer than seven months after the new technology became usable.
The stakes for Harvard were onerous. Schools that didn’t register all of their students by the deadline would be unable to take on new students until the process was complete.
As AAU President David Ward voiced strong criticism before the House Immigration Subcommittee last April in a special hearing devoted to SEVIS, Ladd and her staff at the International Office kept silent, devoting their resources instead toward moving information from their files to the new system.
In May, Ladd’s staff shifted to first gear, working “nights and weekends,” she said. Their work continued through summer, and Harvard made its August deadline with a matter of days to spare.
SEVIS was the most labor-intensive requirement that most universities faced in the wake of Sept. 11. For many international students, other regulations struck far closer to home.
A RACIAL DIVIDE?
A little more than a year ago, a group of Harvard students spent one freezing Friday morning huddled under an overhang in Boston’s Government Center in the company of several local activists. They were trying to disseminate information among the line of men clutching documents that snaked through the lobby of the John F. Kennedy Federal Building.
They had congregated because of Special Registration, a new governmental program requiring nonimmigrant men—like Pang—from 18 countries associated with terrorism to present themselves and their legal papers to federal officials. Critics have lambasted the program since its inception.
Pang says the new requirement has marred his experience even after making it to the United States by a narrow margin. He encountered the system immediately after stepping off the plane when he returned from a trip to Barcelona he took this past spring—his first foray out of the country since he barely made it in.
“All the passengers who disembarked were put in a room,” he says. “And you have three immigration officers who are really doing nothing.”
He’s had to repeat the process every three to six months.
“It’s so inefficient,” he says. “That’s the only part I dread whenever I come back.”
U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft presented the program a few months earlier as part of an effort “to understand better who is entering and exiting our country.”
But some say the new program is part of a greater problem of racial stereotyping facing students once they arrive in America.
The program met with criticism originating in Washington, too. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy ’54-’56, D-Mass., with two other legislators, wrote a letter to Ashcroft in December 2003, urging him to suspend further implementation of the Special Registration Program.
“We have grave doubts about whether the INS’s implementation of [Special Registration] has struck the proper balance between securing our borders on the one hand and respecting the civil liberties of foreign students, businesspeople, and visitors who have come to our nation legally on the other,” they wrote.
In Washington, in Cambridge and abroad, many continue to wonder where the line between national security and openness to the foreign braintrust ought to fall.
For the moment it remains, like a response to Summer’s letters, an unresolved question—one of many for which Casey says he sees no solutions for months, possibly years.
“The international issues are going to be with us for some time,” he says.
—Staff writer Nathan J. Heller can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.