Why You Should Care that Trump Caved to Harvard and MIT on Foreign Students

Kids are less likely to be in school in the fall as a result — and they will suffer

By Andrew R. Arthur on July 15, 2020

My colleague Marguerite Telford has written two thoughtful posts analyzing an ICE proposal to limit the ability of foreign students to enter and remain in the United States on nonimmigrant visas if they are only, or primarily, taking online classes. I made the argument that the agency should do so in April. As she notes, the Trump administration pulled that policy, likely in response to a lawsuit filed by Harvard and MIT. Let me be blunt: You should care, because it makes it more likely your child will be taught online this year.

Schools have been using online or "distance" learning since the outbreak of the Wuhan coronavirus. If you have a school-age child, you likely know the disruption that this has caused in their lives, and yours. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has published "COVID-19 Planning Considerations: Guidance for School Re-entry", which includes the following in highlights: "With the above principles in mind, the AAP strongly advocates that all policy considerations for the coming school year should start with a goal of having students physically present in school."

The coronavirus is, admittedly, serious stuff. According to the latest CDC numbers, there have been 3,355,457 reported cases in the United States (although the total number infected may be much higher), and CDC states that there have been 135,235 deaths in this country from the disease.

I could make arguments comparing the seriousness of that illness today in a country of about 330 million against the, say "Hong Kong" flu pandemic of 1968 (which killed about 100,000 people in this country, out of a population of about 201 million), or the "Spanish flu" pandemic of 1918-1919 (which infected a third of the world's population and killed 675,000 in a United States, which then had a population of about 104.5 million).

Such comparisons are so politically charged (an exceptional statement from a person who talks about immigration for a living), and I am admittedly so underqualified, that I will refrain. Let's just say the Wuhan coronavirus is a big deal, and leave it at that.

Had ICE pressed forward with its proposal (and won in court, which it should have), Harvard and MIT would have been faced with a dilemma: send students home, or open their classrooms to students. I could posit that serious financial considerations (including some major lost tuition) at least in part undergirded their decision to sue, but for the purpose of analysis, I will take their assertions at face value.

For example, MIT President L. Rafael Reif explained:

Our international students now have many questions — about their visas, their health, their families and their ability to continue working toward an MIT degree. Unspoken, but unmistakable, is one more question: Am I welcome?

At MIT, the answer, unequivocally, is yes.

MIT's strength is its people — no matter where they come from. I know firsthand the anxiety of arriving in this country as a student, excited to advance my education, but separated from my family by thousands of miles. I also know that welcoming the world's brightest, most talented and motivated students is an essential American strength.

In other words (and in an oft-repeated refrain in different contexts) "it is all about the kids" (primarily) and "American strength" (secondarily). Similarly, their lawsuit states, "for many students, returning to their home countries to participate in online instruction is impossible, impracticable, prohibitively expensive, and/or dangerous."

That said, nothing that I have seen or read (or that my ever-helpful and opinionated "friends" on Facebook have posted) suggests that there is a binary choice between having students in classrooms (on the one hand) and keeping students safe during the pandemic (on the other). To the contrary, the AAP makes clear that schools can do both (at least at the K-12 level), and the president and provost of Cornell wrote an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal on June 30 captioned: "Why Cornell Will Reopen in the Fall: Students will return to Ithaca in any case. On campus, we can track and isolate Covid cases." Its website explains: "Residential instruction, when coupled with a robust virus screening program of the form we intend to implement, is a better option for protecting the public health of our community than a purely online semester."

So what's the issue? If you care about the students (and the country) as the president of MIT has stated, why not just reopen the classrooms, safely and in a way that protects the students? I shy away from casting aspersions or positing base motives for otherwise equivocal actions or statements (a generosity I am rarely given by those who cannot otherwise contest my arguments), but the most likely answer is: money.

Let me give you some insight on what money can accomplish from my past career at the House Oversight Committee. After Benghazi, my boss, then-Chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), was laser-focused on protecting U.S. personnel abroad, and in particular State Department employees. It was my job to ride the State Department's Bureau of Overseas Building Operations (OBO) as they undertook the construction of consulates and embassies to make sure they did so.

The Obama administration undertook some ambitious efforts in embassy construction, implementing something called "Design Excellence". The Council of American Ambassadors, in 2011, explained:

Design Excellence will deliver facilities that represent the best of American architecture, engineering, technology, art, and culture while providing the best long-term value to the American taxpayer. Designs will be more responsive to their local context, to include the site, its surroundings, and the local culture and climate.

I am all about tailoring buildings to the local climate, but "architecture" is to some degree an art, and art is a matter of taste. You can click on the link and see, for example, the design for the U.S. Embassy in London. Some may call it a work of art proudly representative of the United States, but to me it is Bauhaus on acid, looking more like an office block in Frankfurt than the home base of the United States in the capital of its closest ally.

All U.S. embassies must meet certain security standards, including blast standards (a salient point in light of past experience). That means that if OBO wanted to make glass a major element of the structure (as it did in London), the glass had to satisfy those blast standards.

This was particularly true in a separate project that I am not going to identify in the interests of security. It was to be built in a sensitive location (that is, with a lot of terrorist risk), but the plans called for a massive "storefront" — basically a gigantic piece of glass — as part of the design.

I was critical of the design for several reasons — some admittedly aesthetic — but not least of which was using that glass instead of masonry or stone. I was constantly assured that the glass would meet the security standards, and had no doubt it would — assuming that the government paid enough money to make it blast resistant. If money is no object, you can likely make lace blast-resistant.

Which brings me back to ICE, Harvard, and MIT. Both of those schools have massive endowments (in FY 2019, Harvard's was $40.9 billion and MIT's was $17.4 billion). Each houses and educates some of the most brilliant minds in this country (Harvard currently has nine Nobel laureates, MIT has 10). If Cornell can figure out a way to have in-person classes in the fall, the two universities in Cambridge, with all that money and all that brainpower, could too. They just have to be willing to spend, and expend, it.

Again, I assume, as they assert, that their lawsuits against ICE were strictly filed out of concern about their students. Had ICE stuck to its plan, the two schools would have either had to send their foreign students who could not meet the requirements home, or make in-person classes work. Taken at their word, they would have done the latter.

The complaint filed by Harvard and MIT against ICE states: "Harvard and MIT concluded, after careful planning processes, that, to protect the health and lives of their students, faculty, staff, and communities, they should offer most of their fall 2020 semester curricula online." Thanks to ICE, don't expect that to change anytime soon, because they have no reason to try.

I will assume that your kids do not go to either school (kudos to them and you if they do), so why does this matter? Academia leads from the front — just look at the ripples from the Ivy League's decision to cancel their fall sports schedule. If two of our richest and most distinguished educational institutions choose not to make in-class education work, why should, say, Fairfax County (Va.) Public Schools even try to hold all of their classes in-person? (Hint: They aren't planning to).

And if that D.C.-area school system, with an approved FY 2021 budget of $3,091,688,789, can only guarantee students two days a week in school, what hope is there for kids in poorer school districts? Answer: less than there was after ICE's withdrawal of its policy.

How big an impact will that make? Here's what the AAP, which represents 67,000 of the nation's pediatricians, has to say:

The importance of in-person learning is well-documented, and there is already evidence of the negative impacts on children because of school closures in the spring of 2020. Lengthy time away from school and associated interruption of supportive services often results in social isolation, making it difficult for schools to identify and address important learning deficits as well as child and adolescent physical or sexual abuse, substance use, depression, and suicidal ideation. This, in turn, places children and adolescents at considerable risk of morbidity and, in some cases, mortality. Beyond the educational impact and social impact of school closures, there has been substantial impact on food security and physical activity for children and families.

You have likely seen evidence of this in the children around you. I have.

Harvard's motto is "Veritas", Latin for truth. I just gave it to you.