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April 4, 2013

Senate Matters: International students & scholars at a research university

A research university should be an international institution with a global network. The international character of its faculty, staff and student body, as well as its academic specialties and programs, exchange agreements, external centers and activities, research and collaboration, and global reputation for excellence support this description.

Given the above, Recommendation 10 of the National Academy of Sciences report “Research Universities and the Future of America” ( adds an essential dimension to the report’s call for a national partnership for innovation by underscoring the need for research universities to attract and retain top international students and scholars. Forces favoring U.S. success in this competition include international reputations for excellence in education and research, intellectual freedom and openness, and the lure of the American dream. Forces hindering U.S. success include strong and emerging international competitors for talent and research support, cumbersome U.S. immigration processes, protectionist labor policies and regulations, and homeland security concerns.

Within the recommendation are three broad areas for implementation: nonimmigrant visas, employment-based permanent residence and international recruitment. Each has inherent issues for careful consideration.

• Nonimmigrant visas. The first area is a call to find the right balance between security and access, and hopefully the current debate on immigration reform will address this. While there may never be sufficient openness granted to ensure the unfettered movement of ideas and talent across national borders, there have been significant improvements over the past several years in the efficiency of visa processing, a trend that is forecast to accelerate as immigration services streamline further, move from paper-intensive to electronic application processes and build on fundamental efficiencies and synergies resulting from increased interagency data-sharing and more integrated support systems.

In the meantime, though, international students and scholars continue to struggle. Visa applications, once processed by mail, now require in-person interviews at an American consulate. There the applicant must explain the purpose for entering the United States, present supporting documentation and overcome the presumed intent to immigrate. A decision on the visa usually is made in less than five minutes. Any questionable aspects are quick grounds for either rejection or postponement to accommodate external review, which routinely takes four-six months. Visa issues often overshadow the university experience once international students and scholars are in the United States; the visitors often will forgo travel back home or elsewhere abroad out of fear that the visa renewal process will be neither automatic nor quick, thereby putting at risk continued academic or research endeavors.

• Employment-based permanent residence. The second area is a special call to streamline and accelerate the pathway to permanent residency for those who earn doctorates in areas of national need from accredited research universities. It is both positive and problematic. Positive are the energy, creativity and contributions the immigrant brings into the American academic and research environments. There also are many advantages to the foreign national, particularly in enabling competition for U.S.-funded research.

Problematic is that implementation may not be to the advantage of the employer or desired by the U.S. funding source. Further, some would note that there already is a defined pathway to permanent residency based on employment and that many employers prefer to delay sponsorship until the foreign national has been working for a period of time and the employer sees a positive return on investment. For the research university, implementation potentially would apply to postdoctoral fellows, who arguably still are in training positions. Clearly, great care is needed in setting the appropriate criteria and circumstances for implementation.

• International recruitment. The third area, already implemented by several of the United States’ global competitors, appears to be a call for the federal government to craft, implement and resource a national vision, strategy and goals for proactively recruiting talented international students and scholars. Viewed positively, this invests in creation and nurturing of a future talent pool of top researchers in the United States. Also, for those who opt to depart after earning their degrees, this invests in growing the global network of researchers and professionals essential to continued excellence. Viewed negatively, especially in the current political and economic environment, this would dedicate scarce national funding to support advanced studies by nondomestic students.

Despite the problematic aspects, Recommendation 10 is important to Pitt, particularly as the University continues its climb in world rankings and seeks to capture increasingly scarce research funding. Efforts to implement Recommendation 10 should be supported.

Within five-10 years, implementation of Recommendation 10 should provide Pitt with a deeper, more visible and integrated global character that celebrates the impacts its students, researchers and scholarly programs are making across disciplines globally to the betterment of humankind.


Charles Nieman is director of the Office of International Services.

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