Columbia University Pres. Dismisses Concerns about Foreign Students

When I first saw the title of this piece by Columbia University President Lee Bollinger, dismissing concerns about students from China as potential spies, what jumped out was the phrase foreign-born. Not “foreign students,” but “foreign-born students.” As I’ve written before, the wording is deliberate, apparently a PR move motivated by concern that the word foreign evokes negative feelings. I cited one document in which the phrase “foreign born” appears so often that the rhythm of the exposition is quite awkward.

So, my immediate reaction was that Bollinger had help from the industry PR people — who indeed may have actually written the piece — in composing the essay. My suspicions were then confirmed:

A more effective approach — advocated by many of my colleagues in higher education as well as the bipartisan Commission on the Theft of American Intellectual Property— is to expand the number of green cards awarded to foreign-born graduates of our great colleges and universities.

A “more effective approach” to the problem of campus spies is to give them green cards? What was Bollinger thinking? Actually, in the vast majority of reported cases of “foreign-born” Chinese committing industrial espionage — there are so many that once the WSJ compiled a list — the perpetrators have had green cards or were naturalized US citizens. And many, possibly most, of these first came to the US as foreign students.

Bollinger is technically correct in saying that most university research is publicly available. But that’s like saying the trailer of a movie is publicly available; if you want to actually know what’s in the movie, you have to go to a theater or pay for the video. In the case of research, being physically present and involved is everything.

The fact is, Columbia is making tons of money from foreign students, so much so that any attempts at retaining academic quality seem to have been lost.

As I have said, the vast majority of students from China are not in any way spies, and are simply here to get an education. But a small number of “bad apples” can do enormous damage. I wrote,

Though there are no clear solutions — the U.S. is not going to shut down the flow of Chinese students to the U.S., nor should it — the concerns raised by [Sen.] Rubio and [FBI Dir.] Wray cannot be dismissed. Use by [Rep. Judy] Chu and others of the magic incantation “racial profiling” is both inaccurate and counter to U.S. interests. Rubio and Wray need to hear about the concerns of [the Chinese American advocacy group] CAPAC, but the latter must first admit that there indeed is a problem.

Apart from the spying issue, there is the matter of quality. In my courses, both undergraduate and graduate, there are usually one or two Chinese foreign students among the very best in the class, but most have been either mediocre or near the bottom. Numerous articles, such as in the WSJ and LA Times, have reported disproportionately high numbers of cheating cases by students from China.

And the California State Legislative Analyst’s office found that the University of California has set lower standards for admission for foreign students, as most (at the undergraduate level) pay full tuition.

Clearly, we have a broken system. Again, I have no easy answers, but we could start by taking only the best.