President Tilghman testifies before Congress on student visa delays

Recent anti-terrorism measures have made it "almost certain" that foreign students with interests in science and engineering will face delays in obtaining visas to enter the United States, Princeton President Shirley M. Tilghman told a Congressional committee March 26.

Tilghman was one of three panelists to address the House Committee on Science at a hearing titled "Dealing with Foreign Students and Scholars in the Age of Terrorism: Visa Backlogs and Tracking Systems." She was joined by Janice Jacobs, deputy assistant secretary of state for visa services, and David Ward, president of the American Council on Education.

Instructions given to consular officials who review visa applications are so broad that they could flag students in virtually any scientific field "no matter how non-threatening their work is likely to be," Tilghman said.

"In my own field of biology, for example, it would be a very rare applicant who did not mention at least one of the key words or phrases on the 'cheat sheets' that consular officials have been advised to use in conducting their interviews," Tilghman said.

Tilghman emphasized that foreign students are a vital part of the nation's science and technology enterprise. "I really believe that if this country is to sustain its international leadership role in science and technology, it must continue to engage the very best students and scholars from around the world," she said.

A particular concern, Tilghman said, are foreign graduate students who leave the country to visit family or attend scientific conferences and are delayed in re-entering the United States. Such delays often interrupt the students' established research programs and teaching responsibilities, she said. In written testimony submitted to the committee, Tilghman noted that after the last winter break four Princeton engineering students had difficulty re-entering the country, three of whom are still awaiting permission to return.

Tilghman urged Congress to reinstate a pre-approval system that would allow foreign students to undergo security screening before they leave and to return more easily.

Tilghman and Ward also expressed concern about the Web-based Student and Exchange Visitor Information System, which the federal government hurriedly set up to replace the outdated paper tracking system for foreign students. The system could be a useful tool for screening students, but has been plagued with technical problems that have rendered it unworkable and taxing for universities, they testified.

The nation's universities, like many areas of society, recognize the need to consider the national security implications of their work and have responded with careful consideration of security issues in research labs, Tilghman said. "In doing so, we are trying to balance two exceedingly important objectives: to minimize the risk that our laboratories and the materials contained in them will be used for terrorist activities, and to maximize the likelihood that the American scientific enterprise will continue to flourish as it has for the last 50 years to our great benefit as a country."

Tilghman also responded to several questions from committee members who wondered why one-third of science and engineering graduate students at American universities are foreign nationals and why more slots are not filled with American students.

"I couldn't agree more that we are not doing a good job as a country at science education, at exciting the young students in grades K through 12. I think it's scandalous actually," Tilghman said. "This is a meritocracy. When we do admissions for graduate school at Princeton and at many other universities in this country, we are selecting the very best, most qualified students we can find. And the fact of the matter is that because of the quality of science education that is occurring in this country, foreign students compete very effectively for those places. It needn't be so, but it is so right now."

Tilghman, a native of Canada, also noted that foreign students add enormously to the vitality of American universities and research laboratories. Two-thirds of the foreign students who receive a U.S. Ph.D. in science or engineering stay in the country, taking positions in academia and industry, she said. "I was one of those foreign students 25 years ago, and I have benefited enormously from the education I received in this country and the opportunities I have had to practice science for the last 25 years."

Contact: Lauren Robinson-Brown (609) 258-3601