Publication Date

November 19, 2020

Perspectives Section

AHA Activities, From the Executive Director

Post Type

Advocacy, History Education

When the AHA speaks out, we generally do so in the form of either a public statement or a letter. Statements typically relate to an aspect of public policy, an event, or an issue that affects the work of historians or the relationship of history to public culture or policy. Letters most often address a particular action by an institution and can derive from similar circumstances or relate to an AHA or departmental member. Both tend to be straightforward in form, if sometimes difficult to write. But a third genre gets further into the weeds of Washington bureaucracy. This is the official “comment” on a posting in the Federal Register.

Do not assign the Federal Register unless your institution rewards course attrition or the purpose of your course is to prepare students to either staff or monitor the federal bureaucracy. Its documents are usually long (256 pages in this case), and written without a hint of metaphor, irony, humor, or drama. Parsing them requires wading through arcane technicalities to find the almost-hidden levers of public policy.

I say “almost” because the Federal Register is supposed to be a tool of transparent government. Congress makes laws, but federal agencies write and revise regulations to implement that legislation. The register is the venue for public dissemination and commentary. The National Archives and Records Administration, for example, is required to post in the Federal Register proposals relating to the retention or destruction of particular categories of records. The AHA, often in collaboration with other organizations, posts comments when a proposal falls within the scope of our Guidelines for Taking a Public Stance (see, e.g., responses to CBP Document Destruction Proposal [NARA-20-0017-0014; Control Number DAA-0568-2018-0001]).

The bureaucratic language and technical nature of postings in the Federal Register can obscure significant changes in practice. On September 25, 2020, the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) Immigration and Customs Enforcement Bureau (ICE) posted ICEB-2019-0006-0001, “Establishing a Fixed Time Period of Admission and an Extension of Stay Procedure for Nonimmigrant Academic Students, Exchange Visitors, and Representatives of Foreign Information Media,” which says in part:

Currently, aliens in the F, J, and I categories are admitted into the United States for the period of time that they are complying with the terms and conditions of their nonimmigrant category (“duration of status”), rather than an admission for a fixed time period.

Category F-1 is students, and ICEB-2019-0006-0001 proposes shifting their visa period from “duration of status”—effectively, as long as they remain fully enrolled—to a standard interval, usually four years. Many readers of this magazine are more aware than I that the four-year undergraduate degree has become increasingly elusive. At the graduate level, a four-year limit bears no relationship to current realities, whatever one’s position on what the length of a PhD program ought to be.

DHS “appreciates the academic benefits, cultural value, and economic contributions these foreign nationals make to academic institutions and local communities throughout the United States.” DHS is also mindful of the $41 billion it estimates international students contribute to the US economy. Considering the current administration’s stated hostility to higher education, I appreciate DHS’s reference to the “world-renowned faculty, cutting edge resources, state-of the art courses, and individualized instructional programs” that attract these students.

So why stick a wrench into a machine that works? What problem is DHS trying to solve? The proposal identifies two principal concerns: “the integrity of the programs and a potential for increased risk to national security.”

Why stick a wrench into a machine that works?

The first relates to fraud and abuse, especially on the part of institutions that flout rules in order to collect tuition dollars. Ironically, the Department of Education has backed away from the previous administration’s attempt to crack down on for-profit institutions of higher education whose deplorable record is cited in this very DHS proposal. Why extend the monitoring of a million students when much of the problem could be addressed through tighter regulation of the (significantly fewer) institutions in which they enroll?

That leaves national security. Curiously, the national security risks cited in the proposal refer to students who would have been in compliance with the new rule, students who had not stretched out their stay. The case for national security is weak, both internally within the proposal and according to external reporting over the last decade. Few students are spies, and those accused of compromising industrial secrets or intellectual property would not have been affected by this change.

Historians look for context. Only in the context of the current White House and DHS—the hostility and wild charges they’ve directed at immigrants and their emphasis on exclusion, deportation, and control—can we make sense of this otherwise senseless exercise. The proposal asserts that current policy “does not afford immigration officers enough predetermined opportunities to directly verify that aliens granted such nonimmigrant statuses are engaging only in those activities their respective classifications authorize while they are in the United States.” It is no accident that the nefarious activities in which these students are implied to be engaging are left unspecified. What matters is not what they do but who they are: “aliens.”

AHA Submits Comment on Proposed Rule Change for International Scholar Visas

This proposal includes significant measures that are neither necessary nor useful. Current procedures and regulations provide substantial benefits to both international students and American higher education institutions. There is little evidence of abuse of these procedures other than by a small handful of for-profit higher education institutions whose improprieties can be more effectively controlled through direct regulation. At colleges and universities across the United States, the presence of international students enriches intellectual and cultural environments while enabling citizens of other nations to appreciate American culture and develop networks that benefit our nation’s place in the world.

Why would this change diminish the presence of international students in the United States?

Completing an undergraduate degree in four years is a struggle for many students, whether history majors or students focusing on other disciplines. This is true of US nationals and international students alike. The proposed regulation will likely result in a larger proportion of international students who never graduate, which in the short run will result in negative recollections of their American experience. In the longer run it will discourage enrollment.

The impact would be similar at the graduate level. In our discipline, four years is not a realistic time frame for completing a PhD. According to the Survey of Earned Doctorates, conducted by the National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics (NCSES), the average time to degree for history PhD students is between seven and eight years. Students typically undertake two years of coursework and several months of independent reading for examinations before embarking on their PhD dissertation. Often they need to learn additional languages to perform their research. Many must acquire other skills as well, such as paleography or expertise in Geographic Information Systems.

It would be possible for students to complete history PhDs inside of four years only if American universities lowered their standards for preparation and accepted dissertations that were, on average, based on far less research than has been the prevailing expectation for the past 100 years. Such a change would undermine the globally dominant position that American PhD programs have earned in the past century—indeed enfeebling American PhD programs in history and rendering their graduates uncompetitive for employment against PhD graduates trained in other countries.

It seems especially odd that a Department of Education that professes faith in markets would promulgate rules likely to diminish the ability of American colleges and universities to compete in international markets for students, and that would handicap our own students who seek to cultivate the relationships and cultural skills necessary to success in a globalizing world.

The AHA posted this comment to the Federal Register on October 26, 2020.

James Grossman is executive director of the AHA. He tweets @JimGrossmanAHA.

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