If Donald Trump has his way, Harvard's 5,000 international students will either be deported from the United States or denied entry for the fall semester, not because they are threatening anyone but because President Trump has decided to use them as pawns to force colleges and universities to open up for in-person classes. Because it will look better for him, even if it kills us.
When we moved to online classes last spring, I heard horror stories from colleagues at the University of Southern California and across the nation. Providing every child in our public schools with internet access has proven difficult (but not impossible), but try doing that with students from remote villages in India, who must go to a cafe in the next town to attend class and send in assignments. For many of our students, it is simply impossible to take classes remotely from their foreign homes, one of the many reasons they study here. The alternative, which most schools were already preparing for, was that our foreign students would need housing in the United States, or their education would effectively end.
On July 6, all those plans to deal with the dramatic spike in infections, carefully formulated and then reformulated, as USC has done, were effectively tossed out the window by the Trump administration. The new rules, yet to be explained in the kind of detail that both students and universities needed long before now, purport to even apply to hybrid plans that provide a mix of online and in-person classes, like the one that had been adopted by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Pandemics create hard choices. Universities recognize that many students may choose to take the year off rather than miss the college experience and are paying a huge financial cost by going online to keep all of us safe.
The reason we are all facing such terrible choices is not because universities like mine are putting tuition money ahead of personal safety; in fact, they are doing just the opposite. It's because Trump wants to be reelected, and shuttered colleges and universities are a reminder of the pandemic he keeps pretending was a hoax to begin with and now pretends will miraculously disappear in time for his coronation.
For more than 30 years, I have made my professional home in large classrooms, memorizing students' names so I can walk right up to them when there are as many as 250 crowding the room and I'm asking questions, perching on the edge of a desk, scribbling on a whiteboard. I tell my students on the first day of each term that our classroom is a sacred place, where we respect one another, try out ideas, use our words rather than labels to disagree.
Teaching online is nothing like that. It's more like taking on Sean Hannity while looking into a video camera in a converted garage 3,000 miles away, where every word anyone says is fair game for attack. On my screen, my students are the size of postage stamps. Even so, there's no way to see them all at once. And it has to be taped because not everyone is awake, or has access to a computer or the internet, at 11 a.m. Pacific.
On the other hand, I'm still here. So are my longtime colleagues on the faculty; and the ladies in the lunch line; and the people who clean the dorms, and wash the sheets, and keep our campus secure. And so are my students, for whom the virus is less likely to cause death but may bring a lifetime of health problems, and death for their parents or grandparents.
Harvard and MIT have already filed suit. Other universities will certainly join. In Trumpland, the risks of reopening schools are irrelevant. Foreign students are just props, like a crowded arena or an even more crowded convention hall, being used to satisfy a man who is the architect of his own destruction. The United States president may not give a damn about foreign students, or the American staff members needed to support on-campus classes, but the rest of us do. As we say at USC, "fight on."
Susan Estrich can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.