Now educational institutions must use the system to report and track all foreign nationals and their dependents while they are on campus-and potentially for up to three years after they leave, if they remain in the United States. If not registered in the system by August 1, 2003, a foreign student can fall out of status as a legal nonimmigrant. After August 1, institutions must register each new arrival within 30 days of his or her registration on campus. One of the most troubling new requirements, some say, is the reporting of medical leaves. Such reports do not need to go into specifics, but administrators are concerned that their very existence could violate privacy and raise doubts among officials processing future visa renewal applications, especially where leave was granted for mental-health reasons.
The tracking system, which is supposed to link all educational institutions, consulates, and embassies around the world, has been fraught with problems from the start. David Ward, president of the American Council on Education, detailed some of the more vexing issues in his testimony before the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Science last March. For example, even correctly entered information can remain inaccessible to consulates and embassies for up to 10 days, and immigration documents requested by one school often print out at another, he said. At MIT, Guichard-Ashbrook says that even when the system reports the successful submission of new data, many times the information has not been registered, and the computer prints out blank documents. And according to Penny Rosser, director of the International Scholars Office, the software has prevented her from extending visas, which is permitted by the regulations.
Another early failing of the system is the unavailability of batch processing, which would allow the university to upload student records directly from its own databases. But as of this writing, administrators still have to reenter data into the tracking system manually. Since fewer than 10 MIT employees have security clearance to use the system, reporting nearly 4,500 foreign nationals plus their dependents is daunting. “It’s a work in progress,” Guichard-Ashbrook says. “We were mandated to use a system that isn’t working, and that’s pretty harsh.”
The stakes are high for students and scholars as well as for the Institute. With deadlines now set for reporting and updating information, Guichard-Ashbrook is concerned that some students may simply lose track of time and fall out of official status. The penalty could be immediate deportation, and MIT could lose its ability to accept international students or bring international scholars and faculty to the Institute in the future.
Caution is also evident in the government’s attitude toward university research. Although there is not yet any clear shift in federal policy about unclassified research, restrictive clauses have been cropping up in government funding contracts with increasing frequency. Most of the restrictions involve limitations on the publication of research results and demands for prior approval of foreign nationals who might work on research projects. Such clauses, says Brown, create “a shade of gray between the classified and unclassified world not easily dealt with.”
The new publication restrictions strike at the heart of university science. Typically, universities conduct what’s called fundamental research. National Security Decision Directive 189, from 1985, defines this-in contrast to classified research-as work “the results of which ordinarily are published and shared broadly within the scientific community.” The directive states that restrictions cannot be placed upon the dissemination of fundamental-research results, but only on results from classified projects. It also calls for funding agencies to determine if a research project should be classified prior to awarding a contract. In 2001, Condoleeza Rice, assistant to the president for national-security affairs, reaffirmed that the directive is in force. But Julie Norris, who as director of the Office of Sponsored Programs is responsible for negotiating all research awards that MIT accepts, expects that restrictive clauses will only increase.
“We have spent more time in the last year on restrictions or attempts at restrictions than we have in the 10 years before that,” says Norris. As a matter of policy, the Institute does not allow classified research on campus and will not accept publication or personnel restrictions in any funding contract from any source. And so, though some universities have already accepted contracts with the new clauses, MIT has not. The issue is one of national significance, says Alice Gast, vice president for research and associate provost of the Institute. “As you try to cordon off areas of research and who can do the research, you start to make that area less attractive to bright people, who will move into different directions,” she says. “I think it’s critically important for the country and for MIT to find a way to pursue open and fundamental research that will feed into other more applied research that can be classified.”
Given the national political climate, it’s probable that some portion of what would have been fundamental research will become classified in the future. According to Norris, that has universities across the country considering whether they should amend their policies and accept classified contracts on their campuses. MIT, however, is not among them.