A century on, IIE is still fighting ‘irrational nationalism’

The year was 1921, and a new immigration law in the United States was defeating the very purpose for which the Institute of International Education (IIE) had been created.

Founded two years earlier in the wake of World War I, IIE believed international student exchanges offered the best pathway to lasting peace. Now, strict quotas were detaining some foreign students on Ellis Island, their first stop in the United States on their way to a university education.

IIE, arguing that students were not permanent immigrants but temporary visitors, found a solution that allowed a cohort of about 6,500 international students to enrol in US universities that first year, and has played an influential role as an advocate for international students and scholars in the years since.

This year, as IIE celebrates its centennial anniversary, more than one million international students from across the globe are studying in US universities.

Over the past several weeks, beginning with a dramatic red and white light show transmitted across the New York sky by the Empire State Building, IIE has been looking back at its achievements and at its struggles ahead. While the events of the past century have not produced lasting peace, IIE continues to make the case that international education can make the world a safer place.

Since its infancy, beginning with the fallout from the Bolshevik Revolution, IIE has rescued students and scholars around the world from threats to academic freedom. In the 1930s, it found safe havens for more than 300 scholars fleeing the Nazi invasion in Europe. A rescue fund established in 2002 has awarded grants to 793 scholars from 59 countries, among the most recent from Syria and Yemen.

IIE alone manages more than 200 exchange programmes, including the US State Department’s flagship Fulbright programme, established in the aftermath of World War II, language programmes for the Department of Defense and the non-profit Ford Foundation’s International Fellowships Program. All told, its programmes serve more than 185 countries.

IIE also champions study abroad for US students, especially those with the fewest resources to do so. And as more countries see the value of academic exchange, it keeps on top of the expansion of international student mobility. It is perhaps best known for its annual Open Doors report, which provides details on where students come from, where they go in the United States, what they study and how they pay for it.

“IIE has a rich history and heritage and still manages to be on the cutting edge of the field,” says Sherry Lee Mueller, a professor in the School of International Service at American University in Washington, DC, who managed exchange programmes for IIE for 18 years. “IIE has set industry standards, birthed other NGOs, and raised the visibility of the field,” she says.

Nevertheless, the campaign for peace through education continues to fight an uphill battle, as the Trump administration’s proposed 2020 budget released earlier this week suggests. The proposal seeks US$750 billion for national defence and another US$32.5 billion towards security on the US-Mexico border alone. It asks for just US$309 million for the State Department’s academic and cultural exchange budget.

Making the hard case

A week before the budget release, Mueller hosted a panel discussion at American University, titled “Making the Hard Case for Soft Power” and co-sponsored by members of the international education community, including IIE, where participants grappled with how best to tell the story of the impact of academic exchange on foreign policy.

The State Department recently launched a podcast that highlights the transformative experiences of individual exchange alumni and how their experiences have made a difference in tackling shared global challenges, such as climate change or public health crises, with their counterparts overseas.

IIE President Allan Goodman cited achievements and examples that suggest how exchanges open the doors to strong diplomatic ties and peaceful relations. By his count, 58 current heads of state of government had studied in US universities and 108 Nobel laureates had served as trustees of IIE, or were alumni of IIE programmmes or Department of State Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs programmes administered by IIE.

Ilir Zherka, executive director of Alliance for International Exchange, is hopeful that Congress will maintain funding at the current level, about US$700 million, as it did last year.

The Capitol Hill lobby focuses on the financial benefits of academic exchange. US Department of Commerce numbers show that international students and their families in 2017 (the latest year available) contributed more than US$42.4 billion to the US economy, making higher education one of the top US exports in the service industry.

Even so, Goodman acknowledged at the American University event that “none of us have the hard data we’d really like to have for making the hard case”. He likened exchange programmes to “dark matter”, scientific jargon that suggests that most of the universe is made up of material that cannot be directly observed. Its interactions take place quietly, behind the scenes, emitting neither light nor energy.

The 1921 Ellis Island incident foresaw the kinds of challenges IIE would face throughout its history. IIE’s proposed solution to student detainments back then was to reclassify international students as temporary visitors.

Those who had the appropriate academic credentials and the proper paperwork could be exempted from standard immigration procedures, but they had to post a US$500 bond, which they would get back only if they promised to leave after one year. It was up to IIE to see that things went smoothly.

Another early challenge, according to annual reports from IIE’s first decade, was how to ensure that only bona fide students were granted temporary visas.

It’s a problem that returned in full force on September 11, 2001, when terrorists flew planes into the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center, downed a third plane over a Pennsylvania field and crashed a fourth into the Pentagon. One of the terrorists had entered the United States on student visa, prompting an immediate call to suspend student visas for at least the next six months.

‘Terrible mistake’

In an open letter to the international education community, IIE’s Goodman called that a “terrible mistake”, arguing instead that the world “needs more educational exchange, not less, in light of recent events”. Though international student enrolments in US colleges and universities saw a slight decline over the next few years and student visa policies tightened, enrolments rebounded to record levels. They have levelled off at just over one million for the past three years.

Today, terrorism remains a top concern, but the US international education community also faces greater competition from other countries and increased scepticism domestically, as sponsoring organisations find themselves under greater pressure to justify their programmes.

Too often, international exchange is dismissed as a nice, but not essential, experience for undergraduates. “This is not about Kumbaya,” American University Vice-President Fanta Aw said at the start of the panel discussion. “The operative word is hard case.”

Some of the declines in foreign enrolments were beginning to develop before Donald Trump became US president, but Trump’s emphasis on heightened border security and tightened visa policies for certain countries runs counter to everything IIE’s founders stood for.

Stephen Duggan, a co-founder and first president of IIE, “believed that irrational nationalism was the cause of war”, Alma College Professor Liping Bu wrote in her 2003 book about exchanges as foreign policy. “If a new way of education was used to teach people how to appreciate other nations and cultures,” she wrote, “then nationalism could be mitigated, if not eliminated.”