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Harvard President Expresses Concerns About Obstacles Facing Foreign Scholars


An update now on the status of Ismail Ajjawi. He is the Palestinian student - Harvard freshman - who made national headlines last month, including here on NPR, when he was denied entry to the U.S. Ajjawi had landed at Boston's Logan International Airport. Immigration officers there canceled his visa and put him on a plane home to Lebanon. Well, Ajjawi has made it back. The Harvard Crimson reports that he arrived on campus yesterday in time to start classes with his fellow freshmen today.


In an open letter today to the Harvard community, Harvard President Larry Bacow does not mention Ajjawi by name. He does write of his concern about obstacles facing students and faculty trying to navigate the visa and immigration process. And he says he is disheartened by new criteria for people trying to enter the U.S. Harvard President Larry Bacow joins me now from Cambridge, Mass.

Thanks for being here. Hi.

LARRY BACOW: My pleasure to be with you.

KELLY: I want to get to the policy concerns you raise. But I do have to start by asking about Ismail Ajjawi. Do you know what changed with his legal status, or in his situation, that he was allowed in yesterday?

BACOW: Well, I do know that the good people in the State Department and Department of Homeland Security and elsewhere, I think, explored his situation and satisfied themselves that he would be a fine student at Harvard and made it possible for him to come here. And we're very grateful for their efforts.

KELLY: To your knowledge, was this a mistake, or were there real concerns, red flags raised that would legitimately have kept him out?

BACOW: I have no way of knowing.

KELLY: And were you actively involved in lobbying for him to get in - to be allowed entry into the U.S.?


KELLY: With the State Department?

BACOW: With the State Department and with others, as well.

KELLY: And I'm curious. Have students done anything to welcome him? Has this been a big deal on campus?

BACOW: We've tried to make sure that Ismail is just being allowed to be a Harvard College student. I think at this point, given all that he's been through, he just wants to experience the campus and the start of college like everybody else does.

KELLY: So this letter that you sent today to the Harvard community, you write in it of students and scholars finding themselves the subject of scrutiny and suspicion - your words - the implication, as I read it, being that Ajjawi is not the first. How big a problem has this been at Harvard?

BACOW: Well, I think Harvard is not unique. I think these days many of the nation's colleges and universities have found that visitors to our campuses from abroad have encountered delays in obtaining visas; have had issues, in some cases, at the border; have had difficulty securing the kind of routine approvals that have made it possible for them to travel to American colleges and universities in the past.

I think it's important to understand that our nation's academic institutions are in many ways magnets for the best and the brightest from around the world. And we all benefit for the opportunity for students and scholars to come study and work here. At Harvard, over a third of our faculty were born someplace else, just to put it - put that in context.

KELLY: You have voiced some of these concerns before. I know that you traveled to Washington this summer to meet with lawmakers to talk about this. You wrote a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and also the acting DHS - Department of Homeland Security - Secretary Kevin McAleenan. What response did you get?

BACOW: Well, I received, you know, responses - polite responses to each of my letters. But I think more importantly are the actions that have been taken. So I'm encouraged by the fact that Ismail was able to find his way to Harvard. So you know, I'm grateful to the assistance that we've had from Secretary Pompeo and his colleagues.

KELLY: But to the broader concern you're raising about how this is maybe putting a damper on international students and scholars wanting to come to Harvard and other institutions of higher learning in the States, did you get a receptive audience to that concern?

BACOW: Well, I think these are complicated issues, and different people have different perspectives on them. When I've traveled to D.C. - I've met now with about 10% of the Congress one-on-one to talk to them about these issues.

KELLY: I'm sorry. Ten percent of the Congress one-on-one - that's dozens of lawmakers.

BACOW: Fifty-four of them today...

KELLY: Fifty-four, OK.

BACOW: ...Senators and congressmen. And I think - but most people understand the importance that immigrants play both in the broader society and the role that they've played in our nation's colleges and universities. You know, it's an interesting moment in time where the presidents of Harvard, MIT, Princeton and Stanford are all either immigrants or children of immigrants. And I think that's a - you know, that speaks to the power, actually, of the American dream - of the attraction of this country to people who want to improve their lives, like my parents, who I wrote about in my letter. And they...

KELLY: Yeah, your parents were refugees to the States.

BACOW: They were. They came here separately. My father came before the war. My mother came after the war.

KELLY: Where were they coming from?

BACOW: So my mother was a survivor of Auschwitz, and she was born in Germany. She was actually the only Jew from her town who survived World War II. And my father was born in Minsk. His family came before the war to escape the pogroms of Eastern Europe.

KELLY: You write in this letter that you believe if current immigration rules had been in place then, your parents would not have been admitted.

BACOW: First of all, I should clarify. These are proposed rules at this point, so they're still under consideration. And that's one of the reasons why I weighed in. And you know, neither one of my parents spoke English when they came here. My mother's education had ended at the age of 14, when she was transported to a concentration camp. She had no demonstrable skills. My father was younger. It's unclear, under these rules, whether or not they would have been admitted, as I said in my letter.

KELLY: You're talking about proposals to give more weight to merit-based cases.

BACOW: Right - and to a specific definition of merit that fails to recognize that people, like my parents, who come to this country do so to seek a better life and are willing to work incredibly hard to create it. And I feel a deep debt of gratitude to the country for having given them an opportunity to come and make their lives here. And where else in the world can you go from literally off the boat with nothing - you know, one suitcase in the case of both of my parents - and in one generation, to become the president of Harvard?

I think - you know, that's what makes this country the extraordinary place that it is. And I hope that we will continue to make these opportunities available to others who want to come here, who want to work hard and seek freedom and opportunity.

KELLY: There was one line in your letter that I wanted to ask you about. I was curious. You write, to be a patriot is also to be a critic. You write, it's the role of great universities to foster an environment of loving criticism of our country and our world. What are you getting at there?

BACOW: Well, I think it's important to understand that the mere fact that somebody comes from someplace else does not mean that they check their critical faculties at the door - to the contrary - or at the border. You know, as I said, my parents loved this country passionately, but they also wanted it to be better. They saw, you know, during the civil rights movement, perhaps because they had been persecuted elsewhere, the importance of pointing out where we are failing to live up to our ideals.

And so I think it's true for individuals, but I also think it's true for institutions. What great universities do is that we hold a mirror up to the country. And through our scholarship, through our teaching, we ask questions. We ask, why are things as they are? How could they be better? What are the policies that might make them better - that might make it a place that truly creates opportunity for all?

KELLY: Larry Bacow - he is president of Harvard, where students went back to class today.

President Bacow, thanks very much and great to speak with you.

BACOW: Thank you very much.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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