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Vest reaffirms MIT support for open access for international students at faculty meeting

MIT President Charles M. Vest reaffirmed MIT's support for open educational access for international students at the May 15 faculty meeting.

The issue arose during Professor Vincent W. S. Chan's update on the upcoming report by the ad hoc Committee on Access and Disclosure of Scientific Information. The final version of the report is expected to be released during the summer.

Vest stepped in when Sanith Wijesinghe of Sri Lanka, president of the Graduate Student Council, wondered what effect the U.S.A. Patriots Act would have on international graduate students, who comprise 40 percent of the graduate student body. Vest said MIT has maintained a keen interest in this issue, including visa questions.

"We have taken a basic stance that it is the job of the federal government, particularly the State Department, to decide who receives a visa to study at institutions in the United States," Vest said, "and we believe it should follow from that that once these students arrive, these institutions should be as open as possible in the educational domain."

Vest said MIT had no objection to the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS) for tracking international students online, recently instituted by the Department of Justice.

"This is telephone-directory type information that we have been required to collect, and have collected, for many years," he said. "The problem is simply that it was all done by paper, and that paper got stacked up in warehouses and it took usually between six and 18 months to get the appropriate documents moved back and forth between colleges and universities and the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

"So we have actually been supportive, as all the major universities have been, of the establishment of this system, which simply will answer the questions, 'If a student enters on a visa to study at MIT, did that student come to MIT and enroll? Is he or she here?' We think that is appropriate."

Alluding to a presidential directive issued last October that asked the federal government to identify "sensitive areas of study," Vest said, "That's a rather nebulous phrase, with the implication that the federal government would be in a position to deny access to those 'sensitive areas of study' to international students from countries that it thought should not be obtaining that knowledge."

He said the Office of Science and Technology Policy announced last week that the visa review policy for researchers and graduate students would focus on whether the subject matter was readily available outside the United States, and whether it could be used in the creation of weapons of mass destruction.

"While anything that cuts into our openness is a matter of concern, we're breathing what I would call a semi-sigh of relief," Vest said, noting that the policy does not require the universities to define which areas of study are 'sensitive' and--most importantly--does not put this in terms of a student's taking a particular subject or enrolling in a particular department.

"The downside is that, at first blush, to me, this is still not a very feasible system," he said. "Those definitions are going to be very difficult, and we will have to face questions about what to do if a student comes and changes what he or she is doing. But I think it does show an initial good faith effort on the part of the government to listen to the concerns of the university community and come back with something that to a large extent reflects those concerns."


In concluding the meeting, President Vest said, "This was an extraordinary year in many dimensions." He saluted the MIT community for coming together in such thoughtful and supportive ways after Sept. 11, thanking Chancellor Phillip L. Clay and Vice President Kathryn A. Willmore for their leadership. He also cited "the energy and momentum" among faculty members for innovations in teaching and learning that have been supported by the d'Arbeloff Fund and the Microsoft iCampus initiative, as well as the great progress in campus development, the communications requirement and research by an "enormously creative" faculty.

In other business:

  • Professor Paul Gray announced that Ann M. Graybiel, the Walter A. Rosenblith Professor of Neuroscience, had been chosen to receive the 2002 James R. Killian Jr. Achievement Award.
  • The audience applauded 12 retiring faculty members: Louis L. Bucciarelli Jr., Noam A. Chomsky, Harvey P. Greenspan, Frederick C. Hennie III, Edward Levine, Frederick McGarry, Michael Scott Morton, Stephen Senturia, Arthur C. Smith, Arthur Steinberg, Rainer Weiss and August Witt.
  • Members in attendance approved a sense of the faculty resolution that calls for the Institute to create mentoring guidelines. The resolution says: "We anticipate these guidelines will be developed with sufficient flexibility to accommodate the special circumstances of each academic department, but nonetheless will help shape the development of new departmental mentoring policies as well as broader institutional policies."
  • They also voted to change the date of the 2006 Commencement to avoid a conflict with the Jewish holiday Shavuot, to approve the Committee on Nominations' candidates for committee assignments for the 2002-03 academic year (for more information click here), and to disband the Committee on Corporate Relations.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on May 22, 2002.

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