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Letter to Secretary of State Colin Powell

The Honorable Colin Powell
Secretary of State
U.S. Department of State
2201 C Street, NW
Washington, DC 20520

Dear Secretary Powell:

I am writing to express concern about a trend that threatens the quality of research and scholarship emerging from our universities. National statistics show that the number of foreign scholars seeking to study in the United States has declined significantly over the past two years, and Harvard’s own data suggest that we, like other schools in the country, are at risk of losing some of our most promising scholars to universities in other parts of the world.

I recognize the challenges the government faces in addressing the significant security issues that confront our nation, but I fear that one of the unintended consequences of certain new visa measures is the decline in the number and potential quality of students willing to study in the United States. If the visa process remains complicated and filled with delays, we risk losing some of our most talented scientists and compromising our country’s position at the forefront of technological innovation. If the next generation of foreign leaders are educated elsewhere, we also will have lost the incalculable benefits derived from their extended exposure to our country and its democratic values. And if other countries feel that we do not welcome their citizens, these countries may feel less inclined to help America.

This year at Harvard, applications from international students are down significantly, as they are across the country. Each of Harvard’s nine faculties has reported a sharp drop in applications from international students this year. Applications from Chinese students alone declined as much as 40% in some of our graduate programs. The anecdotal evidence is equally compelling. Faculty from around the university tell repeated stories of talented foreign students opting to study in Europe or Australia, for example, rather than the United States, because of the protracted visa process. During a recent visit to Chile and Brazil, many promising students and scholars informed me that they no longer felt welcome in our country.

Once here, students too often fear leaving the country because visa problems have prevented others from returning in time to resume work or classes. In one case, a postdoctoral fellow in biochemistry and molecular biology here at Harvard flew home to attend the funeral of his father in Beijing, and then wasted five months waiting for permission to return–long after another postdoctoral fellow was hired to take over his project. His experience seems all too common.

As you are no doubt aware, Harvard is not the only university facing this problem. According to a report by the Council of Graduate Schools, 90% of schools surveyed experienced a decrease in graduate school applications from international students this year. The drop in the number of applications from Chinese and Indian students is particularly striking. A recent General Accounting Office (GAO) study appears to confirm our sense that the decline is caused, at least in part, by the protracted and often unpredictable visa process. Indeed, the GAO study concluded that there are no standard procedures for maintaining data or tracking visa cases, and the agencies and departments responsible for international students do not have an effective way to communicate with one another.

There are some immediate steps to be taken that could improve the visa system without compromising enhanced security measures. For example, establishing timeframes for the adjudication of visa applications and conducting comprehensive background checks would provide scholars the certainty they need to plan their courses of study. Such procedures, coupled with the State Department’s new proposal to provide special windows for students or allow them priority in scheduling appointments, might help to alleviate some of the delays.

Appointing an ombudsperson within the State Department to assist universities would make it easier for students and administrators to check on the status of unresolved visa cases and address any problems. It is also worth considering allowing potential students to seek a security pre-clearance, or reestablishing a procedure for foreign students and scholars already in the United States to initiate the visa clearance process before traveling abroad.

If implemented, these recommendations would make important improvements to the existing visa process. I appreciate that the visa problem has many dimensions, however, and would therefore welcome the opportunity for a direct dialogue with the appropriate officials in the Departments of State and Homeland Security. Toward that end, I have also written to Secretary Ridge about our concerns.

Harvard has a long and proud history of Americans and foreign nationals working side-by-side to discover cures for disease, develop business and economic models, and conduct cutting-edge and innovative research. While we recognize that security threats require protective measures, we are concerned that America’s position at the forefront of scholarship and discovery is threatened by the serious decline in international scholars seeking to study at our universities.

Sincerely yours,

Lawrence H. Summers