Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology sued the Trump administration in federal court to block a directive that would strip foreign college students of their visas if their coursework was entirely online.
The universities argued that the policy, announced on Monday, was politically motivated and would throw higher education into chaos. It was widely seen as an effort by the White House to pressure universities into reopening and abandoning the cautious approaches that many have announced they would adopt to reduce Covid-19 transmission.
Harvard’s president, Lawrence S Bacow said in a statement that it appeared to have been designed to pressure universities to hold in-person classes “without regard to concerns for the health and safety of students, instructors and others”.
Several US Congressman and top educational institutions released statements criticising the policy change and announced plans wherein a majority of their classes would be held online.
The new policy requires international students, of whom come from China and India, who are in the United States with an F-1 visa to take at least one in-person course or else face the prospect of being deported.
But the State Department asserted that many international students who had planned to study this fall in the US may still have the opportunity to do so.
Congressman Bennie Thompson, chairman of the Committee on Homeland Security, and Congresswoman Kathleen Rice, chairwoman of the Border Security, Facilitation, and Operations Subcommittee, said in a joint statement that the new policy will damage the economy, harm US institutions, and do nothing to improve America’s safety or security.
“There is no apparent legitimate reason for the (Trump) administration’s inflexibility toward international students attending colleges and universities that adopt ‘online-only’ policies – the Administration seems to just want them to leave,” the two lawmakers said.
“We cannot allow President Trump to continue destroying jobs and cause needless suffering just to satisfy his anti-immigrant base,” they added.
Stanford President Marc Tessier-Lavigne expressed concern that the decision will create more uncertainty and complexity for international students.
“Our international students must be able to continue making progress toward completing their degrees, and as a university we intend to support them in doing so. We will be working with our peers and national associations to understand how best to accomplish that in the context of these new rules, as well as to urge the Administration to rethink its position,” he said.
The State Department, which issues visas to international students, however said the decision is temporary and would provide greater flexibility for nonimmigrant students to continue their education in the United States while also allowing for proper social distancing on open and operating campuses.
“International students will still have to obtain the appropriate visa and may still be subject to other visa processing or travel restrictions due to COVID-19. Students should check with the local US embassy or consulate for information specific to their country,” it said.
In a statement, Chancellor Felix V Matis Rodriguez of the City University of New York said that this misguided policy change also threatens to hurt higher education at a time when the nation’s universities are working hard to adjust to the dual health and economic crises caused by the pandemic.
“With the high probability that the coronavirus pandemic will continue to make distance learning the predominant mode of instruction at colleges across the country, the rule change means that most of the estimated 1.1 million international students will be forced out of the country in September,” he added.