Bollinger Calls on Biden to End the Trump Administration's Assault on the International Exchange of Ideas

In an open letter to the president-elect, Columbia’s president says that “costly and consequential” federal policies have damaged American universities’ ability to attract top academic talent from around the globe.

Lee C. Bollinger
December 03, 2020

Dear President-elect Biden,

When you take office in January, there will be an opportunity to quickly and decisively remedy many of the costly and consequential missteps in education policy we have seen in recent years. Of greatest concern, there has been a sustained assault against the vibrant exchange with the international community that over the years has contributed so greatly to making our universities and colleges the envy of the world. This open letter sets forth reforms aimed at rectifying that misguided turn in federal policy.

At the moment, college campuses are marred by empty classrooms, libraries, and sports complexes; sparsely populated dormitories; and testing facilities that have taken over student centers and dining halls. There is no denying that institutions of higher education are in the crosshairs of the COVID-19 virus. Like the rest of the nation and much of the world, we here at Columbia, and our allies throughout higher education, are doing the best we can under severely challenging circumstances.

One important aspect of university life that is missing is the presence of our international students. To be sure, many international students have remained in their home countries for the same reasons that many American students are taking classes from their childhood bedrooms — because de-densifying our campuses was and remains a public-health imperative.

However, unlike their American counterparts, thousands of international students are unable to return to the U.S. Or, if they are able to gain entry, they face onerous restrictions that threaten their ability to pursue their academic careers. This is not just a minor matter in the broad scale of the academy. These students are utterly foundational to our pursuit of excellence in American higher education. It is a grave mistake to turn them away or hinder their ranks. I urge you to take action against this serious threat as soon as possible after you are sworn in as President.

Actions by the federal government over the past four years have made it harder for foreign students to come to the United States, reduced the amount of time they may stay here, and curtailed their ability to work in this country after completing their studies.

Taken together and in combination with regressive immigration laws, these changes erode a profound and basic strength of the American system of higher education: our ability to attract the greatest academic and scientific talents from around the globe, whether in the form of promising students or gifted faculty members. Before the pandemic changed our lives, more than one million students came to the U.S. annually to study, accounting for more than $40 billion of economic activity each year. And in a different time, the U.S. State Department maintained a web page entitled, “foreign students yesterday, world leaders today,” which catalogued the numerous heads of state who were educated in the U.S. But, most of all, talented international students and faculty have been essential to fulfilling our primary mission — namely, the discovery of knowledge and the expansion of human understanding. This vibrant exchange with the international community has been under assault. 

With your inauguration in January, there will be an opportunity to remedy this tragic state of affairs and to make whole again our search for truth. I ask that your administration make this agenda a priority and include these reforms among your initial actions as President:

  • Federal student aid for Dreamers. Reinstate the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program and ensure that Dreamers are eligible for federal student aid.
  • Travel bans. Repeal the Trump administration’s ban restricting travel from designated countries, particularly those targeting visitors to the U.S. from predominantly Muslim nations.
  • Non-immigration visa applications. Work with Congress to fund the State Department and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services at the level needed to reduce the backlog of requested visa renewals and applications for new non-immigrant visas.
  • Duration of status. Retract the proposal from the Department of Homeland Security to limit the time international students can reside in the United States and allow a duration of stay sufficient for the completion of degree programs.
  • H-1B visas and Optional Practical Training (OPT). Restore postgraduate opportunities for international students by strengthening and expanding H-1B visas, Optional Practical Training and related programs.
  • End paranoia of Chinese students. Instead of enlisting universities to monitor foreign-born students and visiting scholars, particularly if they are ethnically Chinese, focus again on attracting — and welcoming — the brightest minds in the world, regardless of nationality or country of origin.
  • Comprehensive immigration reform. Policy remedies specific to higher education will be fully effective only in tandem with comprehensive immigration reform. It is critical that the next administration work with Congress to address the long-term challenges facing international students and faculty.

These policy changes will have an immediate impact on American universities and will benefit countless international students and scholars harmed by the previous administration’s turning away from the world. More than that, though, this agenda announces beyond the realm of higher education that the United States is once again a nation dedicated to international engagement as a source of strength and a foundation for our leadership.


Lee C. Bollinger

More From the President

Read President Bollinger's columns on the 2020 presidential election and the Mailman School's leadership during the pandemic.