No, I Won’t Start Spying on My Foreign-Born Students

Editor's note:

This article was published in The Washington Post

Lee C. Bollinger
August 30, 2019

The FBI has stepped up its scrutiny of research practices at college and university campuses — including mine.

Law enforcement and intelligence agencies determined to thwart the illegal transfer of intellectual property to foreign rivals are encouraging U.S. academics and administrators to develop more robust protocols for monitoring foreign-born students and visiting scholars — particularly if they are ethnically Chinese.

With students returning to campus, these policing attempts thrust economic and political concerns into fierce conflict with First Amendment freedoms.

To be sure, government-funded academic research in such national security realms as cybersecurity and bioterrorism is justifiably sensitive. Likewise, academic research conducted in collaboration with U.S. companies — a principal target of most unlawful technology transfers — leads to commercial innovations that warrant protections. Universities have an obligation to comply with existing security protocols, identify sensible ways to bolster them, and cooperate fully with law enforcement authorities and corporate research partners if clear acts of espionage are suspected. To the extent we are falling short in any of these areas — and yes, there have been isolated incidents of academics sharing sensitive intellectual property with foreign governments — we can and must do better.

At the same time, however, only a fraction of the research conducted on campus is “secret.” Indeed, the reality is just the opposite. Academic research is intended to be shared — released into the public domain to advance human progress. Groundbreaking medical discoveries, agricultural innovations credited with saving billions of people worldwide from starvation, the Internet, artificial intelligence: All are the result of publicly available, university-based research.

Consequently, a foreign national need not fly halfway around the world to “infiltrate” our great universities and learn about our latest insights and findings: With some notable exceptions, she can type words into a search engine and peruse peer-reviewed academic journals from the comfort of an office or dorm room overseas. Or, similarly, she can visit the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office’s website, where applications for patent protection provide detailed descriptions of recent innovations.

And so, most worrisome to me, as someone who has spent five decades advocating freedom of expression and assembly, is the notion that university personnel — and perhaps students themselves — should be asked to monitor the movements of foreign-born students and colleagues. This is antithetical to who we are.

"American higher education is the envy of the world not in spite of, but because of, its unrivaled commitment to openness and diversity."

The mission of a university is to foster an open atmosphere conducive to speculation, experimentation and creation. American higher education is the envy of the world not in spite of, but because of, its unrivaled commitment to openness and diversity. Attracting — and welcoming — the brightest minds in the world, regardless of nationality or country of origin, is what we’re all about.

To put it another way, the U.S. university model is a strategic advantage, not a hindrance to American competitiveness. Our administrators, professors and research scholars are not, and should not become, an arm of U.S. law enforcement. Ironically, what the FBI apparently considers our great vulnerability is, in my view, our greatest strength.

At Columbia University, where I am president, thousands of students and faculty represent more than 150 countries. We stewards of major research universities couldn’t contain intellectual freedom even if we wanted to. The incompatibility of university culture with systematic scrutiny may explain why even law enforcement officials who have visited our campus have offered little prescriptive guidance, instead offering that we should be vigilant.

The unauthorized use of intellectual property by overseas competitors is a serious problem. But the surveillance of foreign-born scholars in this country is the wrong solution. If law enforcement agencies have legitimate concerns, it seems to me that they should identify and monitor those they designate as “suspicious people” based on real threats, not broad worries about entire nationalities.

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. Many of these international scholars, especially in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics, would, if permitted, prefer to remain in the United States and work for U.S.-based companies after graduation, where they could also contribute to the United States’ economic growth and prosperity. But under the present rules, when their academic studies are completed, we make it difficult for them to stay. They return to their countries with the extraordinary knowledge they acquired here, which can inform future commercial strategies deployed against U.S. competitors.

The mandate of our colleges and universities is to pursue open, robust inquiry across a wide range of topics. Our institutions of higher learning should do more — not less — of what made the United States the most innovative nation in the history of the world.