In order to prevent an exodus of international PhD students, we must stand together


Editor’s Note: Andy Hardt and Mahrud Sayrafi–the authors of this post–are PhD students at the University of Minnesota. Andy is in his fifth year of graduate school, and working on his thesis research with Ben Brubaker. Mahrud is in his third year, preparing for his candidacy exam with Christine Berkesch. In response to the “duration of stay” rule discussed in this article, they were part of a group of graduate students who wrote a letter to Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison, signed by 61 graduate students, 9 postdocs, 42 faculty, and 9 alumni. I am very grateful for their interest and coordinating efforts to reach out to public decision-makers. This contribution is a great follow-up to my October 16 post.

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has recently proposed policy changes that will “remove the duration of status framework that currently allows [non-immigrants] in F, J and I classifications to remain in the United States for as long as they maintain compliance with the terms of admission.” This proposal, by laying a myriad of potential pitfalls for international students hoping to study in the US, creates genuine barriers and also effectively sends the signal that they are not welcome here. We reject this.

For many of us, a personal joy in studying mathematics is the access to human connections that defy distance. Regardless of gender, race, or faith, the knowledge we pursue brings us together across continents, and we endeavor to share this knowledge freely and openly because a language never spoken aloud is eventually forgotten. Even more, it is not uncommon for a work of mathematics to contain ideas that originate across centuries and millennia, reminding us that these ideas have transcended politics and conflict to become a part of the human experience.

Therefore, not only for practical reasons, but also as a matter of principle, we must maintain a unified voice against all attempts to limit who can study in the United States.

As graduate students in mathematics, we will focus this post on the harm inflicted on current and future international PhD students. However, many problems discussed here apply to undergraduates, post-doctoral researchers, and others as well.

The policy change would have clear effects on PhD students. The current duration of status framework is designed to allow students to complete their degrees while designated university officials certify that they are in compliance with visa requirements. Instead, the DHS plans to limit visas to a fixed four-year period, with further nationality-based restrictions that will be discussed later. What this means is that–barring an unspecified, potentially onerous re-application procedure which may be rejected purely at the discretion of the DHS–international graduate students must complete their degrees in four years or less.

Most PhD programs are set up to take either five or six years, and the average mathematics PhD student takes just under six years to graduate. Many students take seven or more years, and quite often come out with a stronger thesis for it. This flexibility allows PhD students to spend time searching for the right field in their early years, broadening their interests outside their main area, and considering their thesis area with the slow depth that is necessary for true problem solving. In other words, the existing timeline is set up for doing mathematics, and is essential to the deep, deliberate thinking that leads to real breakthroughs. During their graduate school years, most students are responsible for teaching–some carrying a high teaching load–and might even be involved in department service. In fact, many mathematics departments depend heavily on their PhD students to teach their lower level undergraduate classes.

If this rule is implemented, it will likely have a chilling effect on the number of PhDs earned in the US by international students, who make up roughly half of the total mathematics PhDs given out by US universities. The additional bureaucratic burden will likely force smaller departments to reduce admission offers to students who they know may not have the chance to graduate in four years or whom they know they can’t treat equitably, while top students will opt for universities in Canada, Australia, Europe, or elsewhere.

For an indicative example, consider Fields Medalists–28 Fields Medalists out of 60 were affiliated with a US university when they received their award. However, only 14 Medalists were US citizens. This discrepancy is not surprising to anyone in the mathematics community, as the US attracts vast numbers of top researchers from other countries. In fact, this trend starts in the graduate schools: 20 of the 60 recipients got their PhDs from American universities, and almost all were still at US institutions when they received the Fields Medal.

Beyond just the top researchers, international students have a large, positive impact on our economy. According to a report by the Association of International Educators (NAFSA), international students contributed over $40 billion and almost half a million jobs during the 2018-19 school year. In addition, according to the 2019 Open Doors report, more than three fifths of international undergraduates receive the majority of their funding from non-US sources. Many universities rely on this funding to fill in gaps left by state and federal funding. For their part, international graduate students contribute to the economy either via international sources of funding or via the teaching and department service they do.

In other words, our educational system benefits from the skills of international researchers and workers. Indeed, even those not sympathetic to the plight of international students should oppose the policy change for its effects on the economy. Higher education is an important area where the US has a strong track record: we must ensure that the best science is done in the US, the best scientists come to the US, and the US economy has direct access to these researchers and their work. Sabotaging this competitive advantage will hurt everyone.

Furthermore, while taking over the responsibility of universities in monitoring and reporting changes of status by the students, the DHS has targeted certain countries for shorter maximum visas, up to only two years. This would virtually eliminate the possibility of pursuing a PhD degree, and potentially even some Master’s degrees, for students from these countries. This restricted list is comprised of countries associated with “high visa overstay rates” and those on “the State Sponsors of Terrorism” list. For reference, this rule would have prevented the first and only female Fields Medalist Maryam Mirzakhani, who was born in Iran, from completing her PhD at Harvard University in 2004.

The DHS claims concern for a “potential for increased risk to national security” posed by international students. International students do not, by virtue of their citizenship or immigration status, pose a national security risk, and we must be clear that such a statement has no basis in reality and should not be normalized.

Regardless of the declared motivations, the restricted countries are almost uniformly developing countries in Africa and Asia with few students currently studying in the US, resulting in a policy that discriminates on the basis of national origin. In reality, overstay rates of students have been decreasing since 2016 and reached 1.52% in 2019, according to annual reports from the DHS. Moreover, by disproportionately affecting international students born in the listed countries regardless of their country of citizenship, this rule sends a message to those already studying in the US that we do not want or value their contribution because of their ethnicity.

In our view, this policy does not serve the interests of the US. For those familiar with the history of mathematics, it might even be reminiscent of the fall of Göttingen. When asked whether mathematics at the University of Göttingen had suffered from the exclusion of Jewish mathematicians, David Hilbert responded: “Suffered? It hasn’t suffered, Mr. Minister. It doesn’t exist anymore!” Indeed, many mathematics departments across the US flourished after welcoming mathematicians fleeing Europe during this time.

Mathematics is done by humans; therefore, we need to tend to our humanity. This policy is needlessly exclusionary, and will harm our departments and communities. We hope you agree with us that it must not stand.

What you can do to help:

  • Call your state attorney general and ask them to file or join a lawsuit against the policy change.
  • Talk to your colleagues, and ask them to do the above as well.
  • Put pressure on your university to come out against the change.
  • Reach out to your international postdocs, graduate students, and math majors, and help them get the resources and support they need.
  • Read this post on Capital Currents.


About Karen Saxe

Karen Saxe is Director of the AMS Office of Government Relations which works to connect the mathematics community with Washington decision-makers who affect mathematics research and education. Over many years she has contributed much time to the AMS, MAA, and AWM, including service as vice president of the MAA and in policy and advocacy work with all three. She was the 2013-2014 AMS Congressional Fellow, working for Senator Al Franken on education issues, with focus on higher education and STEM education. In Minnesota she has served on the Citizens Redistricting Commission following the 2010 census and serves on the Common Cause Minnesota Redistricting Leadership Circle. She has three children and, when not at work especially enjoys being with them and reading, hiking and sharing good food and wine and beer with family and friends.
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