There are many reasons to be outraged at President Trump’s recent executive order temporarily suspending refugee arrivals and barring individuals from Iraq, Syria, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, and Yemen from entering the United States. It is not only wrongheaded and reckless, as Keith Watenpaugh has eloquently argued, but it inflicts needless harm on individuals trapped in legal limbo in airports, in refugee camps, and in countries around the world. It is antithetical to core human-rights principles to which the United States has been firmly committed for decades.
The ban, however, should alarm us not just as Americans or as fellow humans, but as educators. The Wall Street Journal estimates that there are more than 17,000 students and over 2,000 teachers and researchers at U.S. universities and colleges from the seven countries identified in the order. Those who were abroad when the order was issued cannot return to their homes and places of study or work in the United States. Those in the United States face fear and uncertainty.The impacts on academics have been immediate at our own institution, with colleagues prevented from traveling to the University of Connecticut to give scheduled talks. Other universities planning to host scholars from Iraq, Iran, or Syria through the Scholars at Risk program or Scholar Rescue Fund in the coming year will probably have to abandon their plans. The executive order will surely limit access to the knowledge and perspectives of such scholars and students, which recalls the blacklisting of academics during McCarthy era.
Coverage of how the president’s executive order barring all refugees and citizens of seven Muslim countries from entering the United States affects higher education.
But the indirect harms the ban will do to higher education in the United States are also cause for deep concern. The ban sends a signal to foreign scholars, students, professors, and researchers that the United States is not a safe place to study and teach. Even those from countries other than the seven named in the order will think twice about choosing the United States as their destination, fearing that arbitrary changes in U.S. policies could prevent them from completing their studies or interrupt a faculty appointment.They may also fear the potential of discrimination or xenophobic violence, fears that are not unfounded given the increase in hate crimes across the United States. These students and scholars — the best and brightest the world has to offer — typically have their choice of places where they could study, teach, or conduct research. This ban and the message it sends may undermine the vitality of the American academy, which has long relied upon domestic and international collaborations to generate innovation and knowledge.
Education today, and higher education in particular, is a global project. Approximately a million international students enrolled at institutions of higher learning in the United States in 2015-16. International exchange among students, faculty, and scholars is essential for the production and dissemination of knowledge. As Rush Holt, chief executive of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, emphasized in a recent statement, “Scientific progress depends on openness, transparency, and the free flow of ideas. The United States has always attracted and benefited from international scientific talent because of these principles.” Rejecting broad classes of people based on unfounded fears undermines core values of our institutions of higher learning, many of which have long been refuges for freethinkers, dissidents, and intellectuals.
It is not a time for complacency. In the wake of Trump’s order, faculty at the University of Connecticut have called on the university community here to act. Noting that such measures are “wholly antithetical to the values of the United States and of our university,” the professors underscored that “faculty, students, and staff from the seven countries on Trump’s list now face the terrible choice of either having to leave UConn, or not visiting their home countries for the foreseeable future. The rest of us face a choice as well: either to stand idly by, or to speak up against this indefensible act.”
Each of us may choose to speak up in our own way. For some of us, research and teaching themselves may become acts of resistance — tackling research topics such as climate change or gun violence, or grappling with issues like hate speech or structural racism with our students and with each other. Others may express themselves through political action. But, however we respond, let us do so with the awareness that the executive order is an attack on all of us. It is an attack on our students, our colleagues, and our friends — and on the values, purpose, and vitality of higher education itself.
Molly Land is a professor of law and human rights at the University of Connecticut, where she is also associate director of the Human Rights Institute. Kathryn Libal is an anthropologist and associate professor of social work and human rights at Connecticut, and she is director of the Human Rights Institute.