Academics are dismayed by a new plan to watch foreign students in the United States more closely for signs of possible terrorist activities. The increased scrutiny, suggested by a security panel, would lead to an administrative nightmare that could harm U.S. institutions, university officials say.
Some 900,000 foreign students and scholars are studying in the United States. In 1996, a new law ordered the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) to set up a database to keep detailed information, such as current address and academic status, on foreign students. Together with 21 southeastern colleges and universities, INS set up a pilot program called the Coordinated Interagency Partnership Regulating International Students (CIPRIS) to eventually replace the current patchwork of record-keeping on foreign students. CIPRIS would allow the INS to cancel the visas of students who do not show up on campus or drop a full course load for unauthorized reasons.
In June, the National Commission on Terrorism recommended expanding the program to track when foreign students lighten their workload or change their major field from, say, English to nuclear physics. That proposal has elicited an outcry from university officials, who say the increased scrutiny is unnecessary and could be extremely burdensome. It could force institutions into "a megareporting system ... that is invasive at a level we can't manage," says Catheryn Cotten, who directs the international office at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. Besides, the terrorism commission "vastly overstates the case," says Victor Johnson, a policy expert at the Association of International Educators in Washington, D.C. "There is no evidence that foreign students pose a threat."
Johnson and others are worried that more vigilant monitoring may "turn colleges and universities into the eyes and ears of the federal government." That change could make foreign students wary of choosing U.S. universities, he adds, at a time when "this is one of the few areas where we have a trade surplus." Commission member Richard Betts of Columbia University says that modest efforts to gather more data would help authorities. "We're not talking about black FBI vans trailing students to their dorms," he adds.