Global outcry and call to boycott US conferences

University associations and leaders worldwide have condemned President Donald Trump’s travel ban for posing a threat to international collaboration in higher education and the free flow of ideas.

Meanwhile, thousands of academics across the world are calling for a boycott of international conferences in the United States in protest.

Trump issued an Executive Order on 27 January temporarily banning entry into the US by citizens from seven Muslim-majority countries and an indefinite block on entry by refugees from Syria.

On Friday a federal judge issued a temporary suspension of the executive order and on Saturday the State Department reopened US borders to visa holders from the seven named states. But President Trump has pledged to seek an emergency stay on the judge’s ruling. In a tweet early on Saturday, he said the ruling by the “so-called judge” was “ridiculous and will be overturned”. There is uncertainty over how long any legal challenge will take, as well as the outcome.

The executive order drew strong criticism from university associations in Canada, Europe and Australia.

By 4 February more than 6,000 scholars from all continents had signed the international petition, pledging “not to attend international conferences in the US while the ban persists” in solidarity with those affected.

The petition says the executive order had affected people with residence rights in the US, as well as those with rights of entry and stay. Some of those affected were fleeing violence and persecution, and have been waiting years for resettlement in the US as refugees.

Others were effectively trapped in the US, having cancelled planned travel for fear that they will be barred from returning.

It added that the order institutionalised racism and fostered “an environment in which people racialised as Muslim are vulnerable to ongoing and intensifying acts of violence and hatred”.

Among those affected by the order were academics and students who were “unable to participate in conferences and the free communication of ideas”, the petition said.

The petition also questioned the “intellectual integrity” of international conferences in the US and the dialogues they are designed to encourage “while Muslim colleagues are explicitly excluded from them”.

'Profound impact’ on campuses

Universities Canada issued a statement voicing deep concern over the executive order, which it said affects students and staff at its 97 member universities.

The statement said: “The executive order restricting travel into the US affects research partnerships, international studies, academic conference participation, field visits and in some cases family relationships of our university students, faculty and staff. The new order is having an impact on Canadian campuses and communities that is real, immediate and profound.”

Canada’s Association of Public and Land-grant Universities said the “ability of faculty to continue teaching or conducting research is uncertain” because of the order.

Universities Canada supports the call from the Association of American Universities for this ban to “end as quickly as possible”.

The Canadian body said it does not usually comment on executive action taken by another country, but is doing so now “because of the real impediment this new executive order poses to the free flow of people and ideas and to the values of diversity, inclusion and openness that are hallmarks of a strong and healthy society”.

'Damaging to flow of ideas’

Last week the European University Association, or EUA, said in a statement that the order would have immediate and unnecessary consequences on international researchers, university faculty and international students and is potentially damaging to the free flow of people and ideas that is paramount in higher education and research.

Lesley Wilson, EUA secretary general, said: “While President Trump’s security concerns may be justified, this is playing politics with the world’s knowledge pool and with academics’ and students’ lives.

“A major knowledge economy like that of the US cannot allow itself to be closed off. It is not only ethically wrong, it is also a major obstacle to the vital flow of global talent. Universities are already seeing the consequences for their staff and students, but this is and will be extremely problematic in many sectors.”

In Scandinavia, Ole Petter Ottersen, rector of the University of Oslo, called on the Norwegian political authorities to take a clear stand against the new presidential order.

“It is against human rights, it is delaying academic unity and it is creating new frontiers in a world in need of new trust across borders,” he told University World News.

He cited the example of a PhD grant holder at his university, Mutafa Fares, who is set to miss out on a research stay at a US university because he is a Syrian citizen.

“The travel ban is hitting many and blindly, including academic staff at our universities. This demands a firm reaction from our higher education institutions, in Norway, the Nordic countries and in the world at large.”

'Adverse effects’ on research

Universities Australia expressed concern about the impact of the new US executive order on the free exchange of students, academics and researchers between Australia and the US.

Universities Australia Chief Executive Belinda Robinson said Australia and the US had long-standing ties between university sectors and a proud tradition of student and staff exchanges on a large scale.

“If brilliant scholars from the seven countries named in the executive order are based in the US and visit Australia to collaborate on research, they would not be able to return to the US,” she said.

“The ban has the potential to adversely affect research collaboration, academic conference participation, student exchange programmes and postdoctoral work.”

Robinson said collaboration is the “lifeblood of world-leading university research and is vital to the economies and societies of both of our nations”.

Meanwhile, a parallel petition signed by US academics denouncing the executive order and calling on President Trump to reconsider, by Friday 3 February had increased its signatures to 27,000 academics' supporters and 20,000 US faculty members, including 51 Nobel laureates; 104 winners of the Fields/Dirac/Clark/Turing/Poincare medals, the Breakthrough Prize, Pulitzer Prize and MacArthur Fellowship; and 572 members of the national academies of sciences, engineering, and arts.