ASEE, Foreign Students and Congress

Yesterday was my second time in the “lion’s den.”

A couple of years ago, I was invited to participate in a private conference on foreign tech workers.  The group consisted of two dozen or so Silicon Valley CEOs and other executives, and the meeting ultimately turned out to be a planning session for Mark Zuckerberg’s, a group lobbying for expansive policies on foreign tech workers and other types of immigration. That latter aspect gave the meeting a rather surreal air, given my presence, but people were friendly, and when I joked that I had wandered into the “lion’s den,” everyone laughed. Had I made the same joke in the forum at which I spoke yesterday, I’m not sure many would have found it humorous.

This second “lion’s den” was a meeting of the Engineering Deans Council of the American Society for Engineering Education.  In other words, I was speaking to about 150 deans of engineering, certainly a remarkable audience. I spoke in a panel discussion consisting of the two men who had invited me — Jim Garrett and Amr Elnashai — and myself. Chad Evans of the Council on Competitiveness was supposed to be my counterpoint in the discussion, but he unfortunately had to cancel due to a personal issue.

Jim and Amr are Deans of Engineering at Carnegie Mellon University and Penn State, respectively. They are both very warm and open-minded people, and they really made me feel welcome. Unfortunately, some of the deans in the audience were somewhat less welcoming, and the Q&A session was rather tense. (I don’t know whether those who asked the questions were representative of the group as whole. In my account below, I am referring only to those who spoke up.)

In his remarks opening the session (titled Immigration), Jim made a point of asking for a civil discussion, and as an academic speaking to fellow academics, I assumed that the climate would be one of open intellectual inquiry.  Since I usually speak to economists and the like, I had been looking forward to this interaction with engineers. Instead, the tone and content of the questions ranged from politely but clearly saying “I don’t believe you” to open hostility.

I must say before continuing that I do understand. Deans are hired in part because they are caring people who have a keen sense of social conscience (I’m sure that some of the academics reading this are questioning my judgment on this 🙂 but I stand by the statement). I am sure, for example, that the people who essentially said (both during the session and privately to me afterward) that age discrimination in tech is justified would have been appalled by such statements had they heard them in their pre-dean days. But if you are a dean, you need to accept the fact that money talks; indeed, money dominates. All major engineering programs rely heavily on industrial donations, ranging from the construction of buildings to endowed professorial chairs to lab equipment to sponsored research and so on. Many deans serve on corporate Boards of Directions, collecting nice fees.

I’ve mentioned before the engineering portion of the Stanford campus, for instance, with Gates Hall (you know who), Hewlett Hall and Packard Hall (one building each), the Gordon and Betty Moore lab building (Intel, Moore’s Law), the Huang Center (NVIDIA) and so on. I’m a great admirer of both NVIDIA the company and Huang the person, but it is clear that relations with industry are key for deans. Indeed, CMU just announced a $35 million donation from Tata Consultancy Services, one of the biggest users of the H-1B work visa.

So deans cannot ignore industry interests. When employers tell deans that there just aren’t enough qualified engineers for them to hire, the deans must listen. And after hearing a constant drumbeat of “engineer shortage, engineer shortage,” it is natural that a dean might internalize this, and dismiss naysayers like me as uninformed dwellers of the Ivory Tower, if not outright kooks. It’s easy for the deans to enter into a mentality in which they fail to notice that “the emperor has no clothes.”

Of course, I knew all this beforehand, but I was nevertheless quite taken aback by the comments, and the tone with which some of them were delivered.

My presentation had the following themes:

  • There is no STEM labor shortage, not in general, not in computer science, not in Silicon Valley.
  • Employers, including both the “Intels” and the “Infosyses,” use H-1B, OPT and so on in order to obtain cheap, immobile labor.
  • A major driver of employing foreign tech workers is to hire younger, thus cheaper, foreigners so as to avoid having to hire older (age 35+), thus more expensive U.S. citizens and permanent residents.
  • The average quality of the former foreign students who became part of the U.S. workforce is lower than that of comparable Americans.
  • A Staple a Green Card policy (giving automatic green cards to all foreign STEM grad students in the U.S.) would be a terrible idea, as it would (a) exacerbate the above-mentioned age issue since new grads are young, (b) further discourage American students from pursuing graduate study, and (c) result in a decline in PhD production.

It turned out that Staple a Green Card (SAGC) is a key ASEE issue. Indeed, ASEE (specifically some of the people I met yesterday) has been meeting with congressional staffers to lobby for such a program. So, given item (a) in the last bullet above and my repeated emphasis on the age issue in my slides, it is not surprising that many of those in the audience seized upon my age issue.

They openly defended the fact that employers are bypassing older Americans in hiring young new foreign grads. (Interestingly, no one challenged my statement.) The first one to speak in the Q&A, a woman with an Australian accent, spoke quite forcefully, saying (this is close to verbatim),

We live in a global economy! We need more young workers! Our  birthrate is below replacement level! Nations with an older workforce have stagnant economies!

Another, a man from Georgia, said to me after the session,

Employers are going to strive to save in labor costs. They want the lowest-cost workers, at acceptable quality, that they can get, and that is young new graduates. That is the reality.

When I asked him whether government policy should aid and abet this by allowing employers to hire young foreign workers, he gave the standard lobbyist answer (Paul Donnelly, you’ll love this): “With SAGC, they WON’T be foreigners; they’ll be Americans!” Somehow, even a sophisticated engineering professor doesn’t see this as a shell game argument. This dean also added, by the way, that immigration would “equilibrate” wages around the world — ours go down, those in the Third World go up (though he did add that he doesn’t necessarily approve of this).

In my presentation, I stressed how important it is to complement data analysis with qualitative insights into the processes that generate those numbers. I used Ptolemy’s epicycles to show how disastrously analyses can go wrong from fitting equations to data. Surely, I thought, this is something engineers can relate to. And if the topic at hand weren’t so fraught with issues of money and power, I believe my point would have been readily understood.

Instead, whenever I gave specific examples, e.g. of older American engineers who fall victim to policies of H-1B and the like,  to illustrate the hard data that I presented, I got the standard response: “You can’t extrapolate from a couple of individual cases!” — completely ignoring the fact that I had in fact presented studies with lots of hard data.

And when I reminded the audience of that fact, the response was to attack my data (which was not just mine, but that of many researchers). This statement of one woman, spoken in a rather nervous tone, was typical:

Something must be wrong with your statistics. Your findings are completely different from what we are told by people in industry. There is a problem in your analysis somewhere, something is missing.

One woman claimed that many of the statistical papers I had cited were “20 to 25 years old,” which wasn’t true at all. Most were less than 10 years old, and the oldest, 1998, had been updated and expanded to a full book in 2009.

As a statistician, I had been particularly counting on the high level of numeracy of a group of engineers. I noted, for instance, that industry-cited (and typically industry-sponsored) studies analyzing the percentage of patents with at least one immigrant inventor, or tech firms with at least one immigrant founder, are badly distortionary, and that one must look instead at per-capita rates of patenting, entrepreneurship and so on. Though that might have been an effective point had Chad Evans been there, instead those who spoke relied more on their own experiences (“I had a brilliant student”) or claims (apparently never questioned) made to them by the industry. One gentleman from Utah said that someone from industry had told him of there being 15,000 unfilled software developments in the state, and that all foreign students could be absorbed. (When I asked whether the older Americans could be absorbed, he said nothing.)

Since National Science Foundation research funding is so vital to engineering schools, they also didn’t like my noting that a 1989 internal NSF report called for SAGC in order to attract foreign students, in turn in order to hold down engineering PhD salaries. A side effect, the report said, would be that stagnant salaries would drive Americans away from doctoral study. The foreign students came in large numbers even without SAGC, and today we see that most graduate programs consist heavily of foreign students. SAGC would make that even worse. I asked the audience, “Do we want a policy that would discourage Americans from pursuing graduate study?”

Interestingly, there was one point of apparent agreement. As noted above, I had stated that SAGC would reduce PhD enrolment. Currently a PhD will typically get the foreign student his/her green card in two or three years (EB-1), as opposed to ten years or more (EB-3). If the foreign students could obtain an automatic, quick green card after just a Master’s, why bother with a doctorate?

I mentioned to one person after the sesssion that there is a previous historical experience to guide our thinking, the Chinese Student Protection Act of 1992. This gave automatic green cards to all Chinese nationals who had been in the U.S. during the 1989 student protests in Beijing, and lots of students quit their doctoral study as soon as the act was signed into law.

The ASEE people apparently have the same concern, and they told me that they have been pressing Congress to restrict SAGC to PhDs, so far without success. I explained to them why they were being rebuffed: The Intels want people with MS degrees (a  PhD is not of interest to most tech employers), and the Infosyses want to get their hands on all those H-1B visas that would be liberated by SAGC (which would have its own special visa); the number of PhDs is paltry compared to the Master’s.

In spite of the somewhat strained atmosphere, I think that I did succeed in getting people to think about issues they had either taken for granted or not thought about at all. I hope the “silent majority” were not as negative as those who spoke up.

I must again thank Jim and Amr for the very gracious hospitality.  Mi casa es su casa is deeply appreciated, even if the “casa” is a lion’s den. 🙂



29 thoughts on “ASEE, Foreign Students and Congress

  1. Those Deans should read their own statement on diversity:

    It states that “.. no individual should experience marginalization or non-inclusiveness of their contributions or talents because of visible or invisible differences …” such as, among others, age or.socio-economic status.


  2. I would add a couple of things to your speech if you have a similar opportunity.

    By their actions, they are destroying this which allowed them to be all that they could be:

    life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement” regardless of social class or circumstances of birth

    And of course, these 3 simple charts asking where are the jobs

    The problem with statistics that I see is they can be disputed.
    Same thing for theories.

    But hard data showing actual results is not so easy to dispute which is why I am trying to get American Programmers to accept my challenge to prove that they truly are the best and brightest.

    Sadly, none have accepted and I suspect it is because they would have to face the data that is in this list of Hunting Licenses.


  3. When a person with a foreign origin listens to your comments, they see it as an attack upon themselves. They remember that they came here as students, and many of them probably benefitted from programs similar to OPT. They think you are trying to restrict all foreign persons. Since many deans are probably foreign-origin (I bet 20% are Chinese origin), you had a large proportion who were hostile to your comments. One thing I seldom hear: Many of the schools that these deans are from are land-grant universities, which have a duty to the students of the states in which they are situated.


  4. Additional questions:
    1) Do they see any duty to promote US citizens in their programs?
    2) Are they aware that OPT participants get a pretty substantial tax benefit, in that employers do not pay specific taxes? Is this OK that foreign students get a government-supported advantage to being hired?
    3) Are they aware that the H-1B is used to replace US workers, and that Disney, Toys-R-India, SC Edison, and many other countries have done this?


  5. It is sad to see so many people including deans of Engineering schools seems to have no understanding of the concept of a country or community. Yes, it might benefit some company to lay off all their older workers but what does that do for society as a whole? Those who have been laid off have mortgages and children to support. The whole idea of a community is that everybody loses something for the benefit of the group. That a company pays a bit more in salary so the members of the community don’t lose their homes and their kids have a stable place to grow up in and become productive citizens seems lost on too many people these days.

    I guess when you let yourself believe that everybody in the world has a right to US citizenship it is easy to blot that out. Maybe this is what happens when too much of the faculty is foreign born and has no connection to the country they are living in other than as a place to get a paycheck.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Great report, Norm.

    I don’t have time now to respond to all of it, but I liked this:

    >When I asked whether the older Americans could be absorbed, he said nothing.

    The number of people walking around who can actually handle formal numbers and logic, is much smaller than one might imagine. Many people pretend to, and may even have long academic careers pretending, but the number who really have the skill and talent and attitude to do independent work and think independently – is tiny.

    Two other quickies.

    First, I have to agree with your Australian woman, to some extent, the aging of the population can be quite the economic issue. And if you want to make it WORSE, throw your own 35+ workers out of their jobs!


    >As a statistician, I had been particularly counting on the high level of numeracy of a
    >group of engineers

    Hah! How many statisticians, even, or data scientists, or executive employing data scientists, ever get it right about causation and correlation?


  7. Here is my message to the Deans. My daughter’s college education takes 1/3 of our current income
    and she commutes from home. One half of current graduates can not find a job that requires a degree. 1/3 of all bartenders, waiters have college degrees, 1/4 of janitors. With the advent of low cost on-line learning the days of the classroom are numbered. Better save your money like I did.


  8. Regarding engineers and data, engineers are not generally clear about error. For an engineer, error is a calculation mistake. I review grants for a federal agency where a mix of engineers and non-engineers submits grants. Every engineering grant is problematic, unless they have learned a little statistics. They construct a complex model, and believe that this is what the solution is. You can’t say if the solution worked without statistical evaluation.


  9. Any chance that the forum was recorded by someone (to maybe more widely expose the hypocritical deans to the outside world)? Or perhaps more likely was recording officially prohibited given the “sensitivity” of the subject?


  10. Just goes to show- people are motivated by self interest, even if they profess to be intelligent and worldly and data-driven, self interest rules the roost forever.

    ‘It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his job depends on him not understanding it’

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Norm, I enjoyed your presentation as usual, but I think you’ve overestimated your audience in its understanding of your insistence on per-capita comparisons in the context of the claimed superiority of H-1Bs in patent-filings, etc.; e.g, many would probably think your recommended per-capita comparisons would divide the number of patents with one or more immigrants on the application by the total number of immigrants in the US population (rather than by the total number of immigrants in STEM jobs) and compare that with the analogous per-capita rate among non-immigrants.

    Beyond that is the problem of apportionment of patents. In a lot of colleges/companies/fields, it is expected that anyone who worked on a project (or the boss) in however a minor way should be named on the patent as co-inventor. I should think it best to either apportion the contribution by the total number of claimed inventors on the patent or to attribute the invention to the first author. It’s reminiscent of the deceptive studies about the percentages of immigrant-founded firms in Silicon Valley; most people fail to understand how bogus it is to consider a company as “immigrant-founded” iff. at least one of the putative founders was an immigrant. Would they consider a company American-founded if one or more of the founders was American-born? It’s like comparing the probability of rolling a “6” on a die in several throws with the probability of rolling a “6” in a single throw. I’ve gone around and around with intelligent people who simply couldn’t grasp this.

    Then there are the problems with high non-response and of having people with obviously foreign accents asking the questions in a sample survey. In one particular study– widely cited — people were read a definition of a foreign-founded firm and listed possible titles of those who might be considered founders. The printed definition as punctuated could arguably apply to only two people in the company, but as heard and comprehended over the phone could arguably apply to four or more people. Besides that there’s the so-called Wilder effect to be concerned since most of the survey-takers likely had foreign accents.


  12. Not to disparage my own colleagues and friends, and recognizing that my sphere is primarily civil, mechanical and chemical, but if you are seeking critical thinking skills you may have to look outside of engineering to find it. Many engineers, even very talented and bright ones, can often function in narrow, mechanical fashion. They can brilliantly execute the naked functions of their trade without necessarily comprehending the whole, much less the abstract. In other words, there is no paradox in our colleagues situational inability to comprehend the issue at hand: engineers share all of the same vicissitudes and shortcomings of normal humans; the trade does not necessarily bestow upon its practitioner the cold, Spock-like logic that people outside of the field may assume. Nor should we delude ourselves that we are necessarily any different than our friends and colleagues in the purportedly less analytical fields.


  13. 3 things:

    1. rankings of CS & engineering programs. Are you using intuitive or USN&WR, or some univesity professors association sort of rankings. I checked a couple on-line rankings and found them diverging in a few places from my informal intuitive estimations based on relatives, co-workers, class-mates, etc. e.g. I would have rated U of Cincinnati higher for mechanical & aeronautical eng. & what I think of as business IT, though about the same for CS. One on-line ranking did not have MIT or CMU in the top 25 for CS! And there are a couple “lesser” Florida programs ranked considerably higher than some better ones. (Then again, 20 years ago I would have erroneously ranked UCB much lower, and still have doubts about UIUC.). But, whether a university is ranked 1 or 150, I still expect the norm to be that those with a bachelor’s should have no trouble getting CS or engineering work before graduation, and keeping engineering or CS employment 35 years after graduation, so long as they did not totally melt down on a project. The guy from the top school may start a bit faster out of the gate, but I’ve seen some very good work from non-graduates of “mediocre” university CS programs. Your mileage may vary, of course. And continuing self-education is huge.

    2. “Key factors include: age, education, job type, geographic region.”. Am glad you mention region. To some, only the hideously overly-expensive, over-crowded, over-taxed, over-regulated coasts exist.

    3. The person at our “Data Management Technology Center” who was an instructor and evangelist for Object Relational Modeling was by coincidence named Paul Thompson, so even if they’re 2 people, thanks for bringing back memories.


    • I’ve stated many times that there are really excellent students at any school. But the rankings do provide a rough measure, especially for the foreign students, who are not constrained by geography and try hard to get into the most prestigious school possible.


    • What makes a good PhD grad school is different, IMO, what makes a good undergrad school. Masters schools fall somewhere in between depending on a student’s plan for study after the master’s.

      I was livid that my child attending a small private school had 10% of the undergrad student body (not just freshmen) in his organic chem class. When comparing notes with his friend who went to Harvard, he found out that his friend had over 1000 in his econ class. When daughter was looking at schools, she chose a small school where her largest class was 22 and the upper division classes in her second major had 4 students. Lest one say that her program was not rigorous based on its small size, it was a foreign language and country studies program; she attended a university in that country for a semester and took all of her classes in that foreign language – including literature. On Sept 11, 2001 she was waiting on her security clearance to work as an embassy intern there.


  14. This SAGC policy is an incredibly stupid, criminal and downright disgusting subsidy to attract foreign students to the US, have them pay for massive administration and faculty pensions [& salaries] and turn around to compete with any and every american citizen who’s also struggling to find work. It’s a subsidy to the unions and industry lobby groups in the worst form.

    In state colleges foreign students pay higher tuition and act like customers for the local housing, food and recreational economy. They top up the pensions of professors and useless layers of administration. Now this group becomes one of the most powerful lobbyists demanding favours doled out to their ‘customers’ pushed through congress against the interest of the average american citizen.

    If you turn it around, imagine if

    Boeing demanded that all in-flight staff of: Saudi Airlines, Etihad airlines, Pakistan airlines etc. should get green cards otherwise those airlines may purchase Airbuses.

    Any normal American or lawmaker would revolt. But it’s ok when it’s packaged with grease and sold by political snakes.
    I heard that a public school board in the Toronto area was allowing non-immigrant children to enroll as long as they paid full tuition. No wonder some third rate union would be behind it with falling enrollment and pensions the size of jupiter.


  15. Hal Berghel from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas and I suggest that perhaps you should have asked the doubting Deans to publish their own findings on the supposed STEM shortage and the dire need for H-1B visa workers in peer reviewed journals. BTW, Hal wrote an article in IEEE Computer last year ( that may explain why some of the Deans hold the views they do.


    • “Doubting deans” — I like it!

      The following is, I believe, a true story: The Columbia Stat Dept. had a new PhD graduate who was so brilliant that they wanted to not only hire him as a professor, but even as a FULL professor, right out of grad school. The dean said to the department, “I don’t know…What if he doesn’t work out?” The department replied, “Then we’ll make him a dean!” 🙂


    • Wow, that’s one terrible article. If I still read Computer mag, I would have been upset and sent in a letter. I suggest “Follow the money” is not a new rule but an ancient one, and that’s all the article really says, other than some cheap-shot political comments.

      My counter suggestion is that the *economy* has changed and even a well-intentioned dean, still concerned for his students and his university, has to go to the dark side even more than previously.


  16. What about national security implications? If engineering and science departments are populated mostly by foreign nationals, how does that bode for future recruiting efforts at national labs (LLNL, LANL, etc) and defense contractors (Lockheed Martin, Boeing, etc)? That is, if we ignore the argument that stapling a green card to a Master’s or a PhD degree makes one an American and thus qualified to obtain a security clearance. Are faculty members involved in DoD or DoE projects allowed to supervise foreign nationals?


    • A green card is merely permanent residence, not citizenship. They become eligible to apply for citizenship a few years later.

      The big companies are well aware of the implications for industrial espionage, and there in fact have been a number of such cases involving former foreign students. But the companies apparently just treat it as the cost of doing business.


      • There have been a lot of behind-the-scenes responses driven by corporate counsel. They include stepped-up monitoring of network access for evidentiary reasons, tighter employment contracts and attention to IP issues in HR activity, especially exit interviews.


  17. Norm,

    Thanks for your work at the ASEE Meeting. I’ve have several points in response and here’s my first.

    The only fault I have on your presentation is the focus is on your research and logic versus theirs. Again we run into the fact that they been fed and believe in incorrect info. Even when corrected, it’s doubtful they’ll change their positions.

    Years ago, a business speaker contrasted the role of logic and emotion in persuasion. He said that logic is like a pin that may irritate someone but not result in the desired response. In contrast, emotion is a telephone pole. When you tie that pin to the telephone pole and toss it at your audience, that combination of logic and emotion will get them moving in the desired direction.

    In a future meeting with academia, I would love for someone to say the following:

    “In the eighties, the factory workers didn’t believe their jobs could be outsourced. Though their labor was manual, much of it was skilled and how could you move a factory across borders or overseas? But the corporations found skilled foreign workers and facilities.

    Then the STEM workers said that they could never be replaced. Their jobs were too technical. They had years of education and experience. Yet they were wrong too.

    So let’s be honest – you don’t care about STEM workers. As long you support these visa programs, you get the industry donations. But you’re not seeing the big picture.

    STEM jobs are chicken feed. They are only the beginning. Look at the accounting positions at Toys R Us and New York Life that were outsourced – they weren’t STEM.

    But there is a job group that is more lucrative and desired for H1Bs. Their next target is academia.

    All of you academics – consider what you do:
    1. Schmooze local dignitaries
    2. Attend meetings
    3. Shuffle paperwork
    4. Write research papers

    There are a lot of H1B applicants that could do your work.

    And academic positions come with everything that an H1B desires:
    1. Money
    2. Power
    3. Prestige
    4. Privilege

    But again you have to look at the big picture – beyond the loss of jobs. Look at the Wright State visa scandal. Here was someone making over $350K per year. Had all the perks and honor that comes with being a provost. But it wasn’t enough. They wanted more. They had to run a visa scam. Money was their number one priority.

    Wright State is the tip of the iceberg. There are a people looking at our universities, maybe your own and see it as a future cash cow. They want to get in, hire their crew and take over. They won’t be satisfied until everyone attending that university goes through them and they get their cut. And everyone who gets a job in the local firms goes through them and they get their cut.

    So as you continue to support the H1B and similar visa programs, just remember, it’s not just the STEM positions in the cross-hairs – it’s probably yours as well.”


    • Thanks for the comments.

      I had no illusions going in that I would change their positions on H-1B/OPT etc. As I said, they have fiduciary responsibilities to disagree with me. What surprised me, though, was the open hostility. And that hostility is apparently due to my having struck a nerve, i.e. due to my arguments making much more sense with them than they were comfortable with.

      One of the deans who spoke up during the Q&A is not only a dean at a top university, but also is a White House favorite, winner of a presidential award for his work on engineering education. He is on the executive committee of ASEE. A reader pointed out to me privately that this dean is probably a future university president, and I would add, possibly a future senator or governor. No way is he going to give all that attention and perks! I’m sure he will use his influence in ASEE to come up with a position totally favorable to the industry. Your view that H-1B threatens HIS job just wouldn’t make any sense to him.


      • The top level people at universities, etc. will not lose their jobs simply because it starts at the bottom and works its way up the ladder.

        However, when that dean retires, the people replacing him/her will be those that came in at the bottom who were promoted ahead of similarly qualified Americans.

        Why do I believe that?
        Because that is what I have seen happening in the software industry.


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