With more than 17,000 college students in the United States coming from the seven countries impacted by President Trump's refugee ban, it was no surprise that the move earned him strong rebuke on campuses across the country. The shocker, however, was that so much of the criticism came from the top.
Michigan State president Lou Anna K. Simon was typical of her administration brethren when writing: "President Trump's executive order on immigration is deeply concerning as it runs counter to the global nature of our communities and our nation. At MSU, our core values are quality, inclusiveness, and connectivity, and this action is an impediment to each. I am keenly aware of the need to address genuine risks to our nation but this order, and the manner it was implemented, is not the best approach."
One MSU trustee, Mitch Lyons, disagreed in a tweet: "An 'impediment to quality, connectivity, and inclusiveness' at MSU is a terrorist blowing himself up on campus #SecureTheBorder." Lyons later deleted the message and issued a "statement of clarification" in which he said, in part: "I don't claim to have the expertise to know whether or not it is needed or the best way to stop terrorism coming from outside our borders. My tweet was simply to illustrate my support for making the U.S. safer from external terror organizations."
But the debate at MSU is hardly unique. Dozens of university presidents have sparked a dialogue about the ban by voicing their disagreement. And it's not just the usual Northeastern, liberal suspects, although they are well-represented. That Penn's Amy Gutmann was vehement in her response might be expected, but being joined by the likes of Notre Dame's Father John I. Jenkins, C.S.C., was not.
Gutmann wrote: "President Trump's recent Executive Order is injurious to our work and inimical to our values. The damage already done to the lawful freedoms and opportunities of our students and colleagues, here and around the world, is undeniable and indefensible. This Order will weaken the promise of educational opportunity, intellectual discovery, and global engagement that so distinguishes American universities."
And her statement was more personal than most: "I am the daughter of a Jewish immigrant who fled Nazi Germany. My grandfather was an immigrant. My son-in-law is an immigrant. My family's story is part of a proud and productive American story, as is all of yours."
Six hundred and seventy miles away in South Bend, Ind., Father Jenkins saw it much the same way: "If it stands, it will over time diminish the scope and strength of the educational and research efforts of American universities, which have been the source not only of intellectual discovery but of economic innovation for the United States and international understanding for our world; and, above all, it will demean our nation, whose true greatness has been its guiding ideals of fairness, welcome to immigrants, compassion for refugees, respect for religious faith and the courageous refusal to compromise its principles in the face of threats."
Lehigh's president, John Simon, who was joined by two senior school administrators, similarly pulled no punches: "Let us be clear: We reject, in the strongest terms, action that stereotypes or discriminates on the basis of religion, nationality, race, gender, or any other personal characteristic or identity. We firmly believe that we are all enriched by relationships that bridge cultures and worldviews and that our community is stronger when we are bound by the principles of mutual respect, acceptance and inclusivity."
Some schools have made clear their support for both students and national security. That was the approach taken by Oral Roberts University president William M. Wilson, who said: "We stand with our students and also support our nation's attempts to protect its citizens through a thorough vetting process. . . . We are a global university with 90 nations represented and will continue to work with U.S. immigration to do what's best for the United States and for those seeking an education here."
And there were a few who saw President Trump's move as being at odds with their own climate of tolerance and inclusion. Consider Texas A&M University president Michael K. Young: "Finally, and most importantly, we are Aggies united - inclusive of nationality, cultural identity, age, gender identity or expression, physical ability, political ideology, racial and ethnic identity, religious and spiritual identity, sexual orientation, and social and economic status - so please respect each other, stay informed, and support each other as Aggies do!"
Regardless of location, academic emphasis, or even religious affiliation, the expressions have been nearly uniform in their concern for both students and faculty unable to gain entry to continue their work. And many presidents, including Penn State's Eric J. Barron, noted their membership in the Association of American Universities, whose own president, Mary Sue Coleman, issued a statement of her own, saying in part: "We recognize the importance of a strong visa process to our nation's security. However, the administration's new order barring the entry or return of individuals from certain countries is already causing damage and should end as quickly as possible."
There was one argument missing from the many statements I read: We are losing, perhaps poisoning, the ambassadorial role played by foreign students who come from places where America desperately lacks foot soldiers to properly present our way of life to individuals who lack access to an honest flow of information. Ask yourself: Would you rather have Iranians gaining their information and insights about the United States from their supreme leader, or from the more than 12,000 Iranian students who study here?