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Sluggish SEVIS database complicates process for documenting internationals

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The federal government's new tracking system for international students and scholars has slowed the speed at which MIT can bring people to campus from other countries, but many faculty members still remain unaware that control of documentation has shifted largely out of the hands of MIT's offices of international students and scholars.

The directors of those two offices said at the Feb. 19 faculty meeting that the federal government's new electronic database, the Student and Exchange Visitor Information Systems (SEVIS), which went into effect Jan. 30--coupled with stricter security checks on all visa applicants--has profoundly altered the process for bringing admitted students and visiting scholars to campus.

"The days of us being able to print a document in a day and then run it up to Harvard the same day for an international scholar's transfer are over," said Penny Rosser, director of the International Scholars Office. "We are at the mercy of this imperfect electronic system. We send data in a form into cyberspace and then we must wait for it to come back before we can print a document."

The information in the SEVIS database is shared by the Department of State (including consulates and embassies), the Immigration and Naturalization Service, the sponsoring institution (in this case MIT) and the Social Security Administration. Danielle Guichard-Ashbrook, director of the International Students Office and associate dean of graduate students, said other government agencies, perhaps including the Internal Revenue Service, may be given access to the information in the future.

SEVIS now requires universities to track students and scholars, as well as dependents who will be traveling with them. Changes that affect registration--such as approved leaves or dropping to less than full-time status--must be reported.

Moreover, international students and visitors now must notify the government of any change in address within 10 days, a radical departure from before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, when the government often didn't pay much attention to these things. Often changes were reported only when students sought a renewed visa. Changes in status must now be reported electronically--in advance.

A lapse in compliance could mean trouble for a student.

"Faculty members have to help students understand that they [the students] are responsible for remaining compliant with these rules," said Ike Colbert, dean for graduate students.

The difficulties faced by universities using SEVIS are compounded by the fact that the system isn't working correctly, Rosser and Guichard-Ashbrook told the faculty.

"We input correct information, but wrong information frequently comes back. And it crashes many, many times a day," said Guichard-Ashbrook, who encouraged faculty to get the word out that times have changed. "Spread the word," she said.

This year MIT has 403 international undergraduates (9 percent of all undergrads) and 2,416 international graduate students (40 percent of grad students), up from 2,000 in 1992. In 2001-02, MIT had 1,648 international scholars from 82 countries.

New Degree Programs

Professor Kip Hodges, chair of the Committee on the Undergraduate Program (CUP), discussed a proposal to codify the process for creating new undergraduate degree programs and presented a motion for faculty approval of the proposed guidelines. The motion will be voted on at the next faculty meeting.

Agreed to by CUP, the Committee on Curriculum (CoC) and the Faculty Policy Committee (FPC), the proposed guidelines designate the required components of new major proposals and the appropriate evaluation processes for various types of proposed majors, and stipulate that all proposals first will be submitted to the CoC, which will notify the faculty and invite general comment.

Hodges also gave updates to two experimental bachelor of science degree programs: in archeology and materials, and in comparative media studies. Both programs are interdepartmental or interdisciplinary majors and have been approved as CUP-sanctioned experiments.

Faculty members are encouraged to download the proposed guidelines at

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on February 26, 2003.

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