Grad School's International Glow Is Dimmed by Security Concerns

By SAMUEL G. FREEDMAN
Published: October 27, 2004
NY Times

BERKELEY, CA: WHEN the World Cup soccer tournament reached the quarterfinal round in the late spring of 2002, Prof. Paul Alivisatos noticed a particularly fervent interest among his doctoral students in chemistry at the University of California. He eventually realized why. Of the eight countries competing, countries stretching around the globe from Brazil to Turkey to South Korea, Professor Alivisatos had a protégé from every one except Senegal.

The coincidence bespoke more than the polyglot nature of Berkeley's campus. It attested, too, to the reliance of research universities on foreign-born graduate students, especially in sciences, mathematics and engineering. That reliance, in turn, is shared by America's high-technology companies, including those within an hour of here in the Silicon Valley.

Yet at the very time Professor Alivisatos was exulting in the international flavor of his university, that trait was coming under assault as a result of heightened border controls in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks in the United States. Those soccer fans all had entered Berkeley before Sept. 11, 2001. Some had received their visas on the day they were interviewed in American consulates, most within a week or so.

By now, three classes later, Berkeley has seen its enrollment of graduate students from abroad drop by one-third. A national survey by the Council of Graduate Schools determined that admissions of international students at 125 universities fell by an average of 18 percent in the last year alone. Both the Berkeley and national studies found that the students most affected were not only those from Islamic countries, but from China, as well as such American allies as India, South Korea and Israel.

"Nobody wants to be the person who stamps the visa for the next Mohammed Atta," Professor Alivisatos put it. "But we'll never know who it was who refused a visa for the next Einstein."

Joseph Duggan, the associate dean of the graduate division, said: "I've been on the faculty for 40 years, and in the administration for 18, and until now there's never been a time when there's been pressure from the federal government not to admit graduate students. We know there's a security problem to be dealt with. We just wish it could be dealt with in a more focused way."

The Bush administration maintains that the total number of international students at all grade levels has risen to 640,000 now from 580,000 two years ago, although it does not have figures specifically for graduate students. Russ Knocke, the director of public affairs for immigration and customs enforcement in the Department of Homeland Security, also said that since August 2003, about 2,800 international students have been investigated and 381 arrested for immigration violations, criminal activities or national security threats.

"Our system is allowing in the foreign students who deserve to be here," he said, "and it's weeding out the ones who don't."

That viewpoint certainly is not shared in Berkeley, where the increased scrutiny has affected many facets of academic life. Of those graduate students who did ultimately obtain visas, more than half experienced significant delays at embassies, consulates and border crossings. Hundreds had to postpone their arrival for classes or change their research plans. Parents of international students have been denied visas to attend commencement ceremonies. Faculty members like Professor Alivisatos found few foreign students willing to attend academic meetings and conferences outside the United States for fear they would not be readmitted.

Such a fear is hardly hyperbolic. In the summer of 2003, a Berkeley chemistry student, Xuesong Li, went home to China to visit his family. During the months of waiting for the American consulate to issue him a visa to return, his doctoral adviser in Berkeley dropped him from a research project rather than abandon it. As a consequence, Mr. Li lost his right to come back to the United States and finish his degree.

WITH that cautionary tale in mind, one of Mr. Li's classmates, Haitao Liu, traveled to China last summer to attend to his severely ill father. It took the American consulate in Shanghai five weeks to grant him a visa - the same visa he had gotten in 30 minutes when first entering graduate school in the summer of 2001. Only because Mr. Liu's adviser, Professor Alivisatos, held his place on a research project was the graduate student able to return at all. Mr. Liu's wife, also a doctoral candidate in chemistry, was so shaken by his experience that she has not dared visit family in China.

The impact of homeland security on graduate education affects far more than academic life. America does not produce enough doctoral candidates in the sciences and related fields to meet its own needs; while international students form 18 percent of Berkeley's entire graduate division, they have accounted for 34 percent of doctorates awarded in math and engineering over the last five years.

Almost half of those international students remain in the United States after receiving their degrees, a coveted talent pool for private industry. Professor Alivisatos's recent graduates have gone on to high-tech start-ups such as QuantumDot, which produces biomedical imaging, and Nanosys, which develops low-cost solar cells.

Immigrants have founded one-third of the new technology companies in the region, said R. Sean Randolph, president of the Bay Area Economic Forum, a public policy organization.

Now, however, the biggest drop in admissions nationally has taken place in engineering and the sciences, according to the Council of Graduate Schools. The rate of applications is falling even faster, a sign that talented students are seeking admission to graduate programs outside the United States.

"The long-term effect is very significant," Mr. Randolph said. "If the overseas students go to graduate school in England or Western Europe, the American economy won't be capturing their benefit. And if you play that out over a period of years, it has some real consequences for our competitiveness."

It all adds up to a weird contradiction - an America that is fighting a global war and simultaneously retreating into isolationism.

"My opinion, this policy is just what bin Laden wants," said Mr. Liu, a doctoral candidate in chemistry at Berkeley. "If America closes the door to the world, that's what the bad guys want."

E-mail: sgfreedman@nytimes.com