International educators look to minimise Trump fallout

A sense of urgency tempered by a call for pragmatism permeated discussions last week at an annual conference in Washington as international educators considered how best to respond to the politics of uncertainty under a Donald Trump presidency.

While some hallway conversation revealed a sense of alarm, organisers of the conference for the Association of International Education Administrators, or AIEA, sought to dial back on the panic and hyperbole and focus instead on actions university administrators can take to minimise potential fallout from recent actions taken by Trump and his administration.

Like numerous other higher education associations, AIEA issued a statement late last month decrying Trump's efforts to tighten immigration policies, arguing that the changes "will have pernicious and lasting effects that will curb entry and degrade security in the United States and around the world".

"This is a timely moment for international education and we certainly have significant challenges that reach to the core of our profession," said Hilary E Kahn, incoming president of the organisation, which wrapped up its annual meetings on Thursday. "This is why we stand by and strongly reaffirm our statement of 30 January and encourage international education leaders to build new alliances and networks to support and sustain our critically important work.”

Trump last month signed two executive orders that directly affect some students, as well as faculty and staff: Under one order, described as "enhancing public safety", undocumented immigrants, including college students who had been protected under President Barack Obama, now face the prospect of deportation. Trump has said in the past that he is not targeting undocumented college students, Louisiana immigration lawyer David Ware noted in one conference session.

The other order, aimed at stemming the entry into the United States of foreign terrorists, seeks to deter immigrants from seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States. Trump's initial order was blocked by federal courts but a revised version is expected – probably in the week ahead, White House officials said on Wednesday.

'Systemic anxiety'

The fast-changing policy climate has created a kind of "systemic anxiety" across higher education, said Thomas Bogenschild, executive director of global education at the University of Oregon. He led a session on updates on legislation that affects international education. "We're all feeling our way here," Bogenschild said in opening remarks. "We just don’t know, so let’s focus on what we do know."

Perhaps one certainty, he and other speakers said, is that federal funding for international education initiatives such as academic exchange are on the chopping block. "There will be cuts. We just don't know what size yet," said Lisa Heyn, associate director for government relations at the non-profit Alliance for International Exchange.

In other sessions, attendees shared tips on how they are helping students who may be affected by Trump policies. Ohio University, for example, has launched a regularly updated website as a resource for students, faculty and staff to provide real-time developments on federal immigration policies.

Ware, the immigration lawyer, reminded administrators that they cannot obstruct a probe on their campus, but added that they are under no obligation to assist federal investigators. It also is not illegal for universities to provide options, such as referrals to immigration lawyers, he said.

Ware cautioned AIEA members against declaring their campuses a sanctuary, even if students press them to do so, arguing that it carries no legal meaning or protection and may draw unwanted attention to a campus at what he called "a dangerous time".

Sean Manley-Casimir, executive director of the Consortium for North American Higher Education Collaboration, a non-profit network of more than 180 institutions in Mexico, Canada and the United States, cited news reports suggesting that Mexico and Canada already feel the impact of Trump's directives.

For example, some Mexican organisations have created scholarships and the government has made it easier for US-educated students to have their academic credentials validated. And several Canadian universities have reported unusually steep increases in applications from US students.

Earlier last week, researchers attending a conference of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Boston took to the streets with speeches and signs to register their concerns about Trump's stance on science.

The AIEA conference took a more reflective approach.

"This is a moment to collect our thoughts, to rethink international education," said Susan Buck Sutton, a senior advisor for international initiatives at Bryn Mawr College. "We are responding, protecting our international students and immigrants, but we really need to think about the long run."