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Is the United States Less Welcoming of Visiting Scholars?

  • Carol Pearson

April 9th was the 100th birthday of the late U.S. Senator J. William Fulbright, who championed international understanding and created the scholar exchange program that funded the well-known "Fulbright Scholarships." But now, almost 60 years after the program was founded, some are wondering if the United States is less welcoming of visiting scholars.

After the September 11 terrorist attacks, the United States tightened its visa requirements for international students, instructors and researchers. The tighter security and well-publicized cases of foreign professors whose visas were denied or revoked prompted some critics to ask if the United States was developing a fortress mentality.

Victor Johnson, the public policy director for NAFSA, the Association for International Educators, says, "All these controls we put in place to make it harder and harder to get into this country and a lengthier and lengthier process, are part of what contributes to the impression that we're not a welcoming place to be."

Not everyone has that impression. Professor Pek Koon Heng holds a Malaysian passport. She teaches Asian studies at American University in Washington, D.C. She says working in a city where democracy and human rights are discussed by the U.S. government and in her classroom makes teaching international studies even more interesting.

"To come here and to be involved with this discourse on the big issues and to be able to bring my own perspective as a southeast Asian, and to be able to offer different ways of thinking to the students, has been extremely stimulating," says the professor.

Analysts say international scholars remain a vital part of American higher education. In 2003 more than 84,000 international scholars worked at American colleges and universities. And the number of international scholars coming to the U.S. has decreased by fewer than than 2,000 since September 11th 2001.

Part of that drop has nothing to do with tighter visa restrictions: China and South Korea are the countries with the biggest declines. Their university systems are expanding and their scholars are needed at home.

Allan Goodman is president of the Institute of International Education and administers the Fulbright program for the State Department.

"The basic conditions that cause a professor to want to come here or that cause an American professor to want to study in Europe or the Middle East, those driving forces haven't changed so professors are still trying to move between countries, and they still do. It's just harder and different to do this in the post-9/11 era," says Mr. Goodman.

And Victor Johnson says the United States may yet be hurt by the perception that foreign scholars are not welcome.

"We're not the only place with good universities and advanced research centers where scholars can go and do their work. It's easy to lose them to other places if you make yourself appear unwelcoming," says Mr. Johnson.

NAFSA is urging the U.S. government to streamline the process for security clearances, provide clearer guidelines for U.S. consular officers, hire more of them and make the whole process more transparent. The U.S. government has made some improvements in these areas, but perceptions abroad don't reflect that.

Allan Goodman says there's another reason why the United States needs foreign scholars and researchers.

"They are often the only chance that an American student or an American professor gets to interact with someone from another culture," says Mr. Goodman.

He says so few American students travel abroad that without interaction with these scholars, many Americans won't be exposed to valuable international perspectives.

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