Expanding Harvard's Horizons

University-wide travel restrictions must be revised based on logic, not liability

With summer move-out a not-yet-distant memory, hundreds of Harvard students are again packing their bags. Venturing forth from the classrooms of Cambridge, they will disperse across the globe to study, volunteer, intern, work, and research, gaining valuable knowledge of the world beyond America’s shores. But for some, the most notable aspect of this exodus is where these student will not be going.

The past year has seen heightened discussion of the University’s travel restrictions, a process which culminated in early May with the presentation of a petition signed by nearly 400 students and faculty to Dean of the College Benedict H. Gross ’71, Deputy Dean of the College Patricia O’Brien, and Director of the Office of International Programs (OIP) Jane Edwards. Despite the increased attention, however, no progress has been made as of yet to modify the contested policy. Instead of continuing to ignore this issue, the University would be wise to redesign its restriction policy to better address safety concerns without unnecessarily limiting the opportunities of its students.

Harvard has traditionally deterred student travel to countries that receive the State Department’s direst travel notice which “warns U.S. citizens against travel” to the country in question. But when the OIP—in consultation with the Harvard Office of General Counsel (OGC)—reviewed and revised the restriction guidelines last July, the University’s travel restrictions were extended to cover all countries receiving any level of State Department warning, including the relatively mild request that travelers “carefully weigh the necessity of their travel” in light of the risks involved.

The result has been an expanded list of countries that fall under Harvard’s blanket restriction policy. The University will provide neither academic credit nor financial support for programs of study, internships, research work, volunteer opportunities, and extracurricular pursuits based in these countries. And although it’s easy to recognize that the move reduces Harvard’s liability concerns, the real question is whether or not the benefits of a blanket policy (including the administrative ease with which travel requests can be processed), can really outweigh the costs.

An important cornerstone of the Harvard College Curricular Review’s developing vision for undergraduate education is that each student be supported and encouraged in planning his or her own “international experience.” The Curricular Review’s most recent report stresses the need for “global competency” and a more thorough understanding of cultures and societies that are not our own. If the College plans to seriously pursue this expectation it is essential that Harvard provide as diverse a set of opportunities and destinations as possible. While the report recognizes that any international experience can be significant in instilling this understanding, it makes special note of the importance of missions to “a non-Anglophone culture or third-world society.” As the University’s travel policy currently stands, however, the vast majority of both Africa and the Middle East are inaccessible to students—in fact, students wishing to study in the Middle East are limited to the Gulf States, Jordan, and Egypt. Israel is off-limits despite only meriting a less severe State Department travel advisory.

Of course, no one is suggesting that the University abandon its travel restrictions entirely; there are clearly some regions of the world where Harvard can reasonably conclude that student safety is an overriding concern. But country-based blanket restrictions are simultaneously heavy-handed and insufficient. Students wishing to study at the American University of Beirut or intern with a nonprofit in Jakarta are out of luck—both Lebanon and Indonesia are off limits despite the fact both are locales where a responsible traveler can expect no more danger than would be found in many U.S. cities. At the same time, the Indian side of Kashmir is an acceptable travel destination—India is not under a State Department travel warning.

What the University needs is a policy with more room for nuance and sensible judgment. Instead of blanket restrictions, Harvard should judge travel proposals on a case-by-case basis that ensures that students are well-prepared to pursue a safe and responsible experience. When the OIP considers a student’s application, it should take into account not only the specific region involved, but also the way the travel is structured—including the proposed itinerary and the organizations and institutions involved—and the applicant’s ability to navigate the society around them as measured by language skills, cultural and ethnic background, and even related experiences.

A case-by-case system where restrictions are decided internally would expand student options without risking student safety. And if the University has any concerns about establishing such a program, it can take cues from a number of other universities, including Yale and New York University, where similar guidelines have been implemented successfully. By next summer, Harvard students must have even more of the world to explore.