Regardless of whether it stands up in court, President Trump’s executive order banning the entry of refugees and nationals from seven Muslim-majority countries into the United States has done enormous harm to Muslim students who are studying or aspire to study here. American colleges and universities must react quickly and effectively to limit the damage, which reverberates well beyond the seven countries and the 15,000-plus students affected directly by the order.
Aside from the moral and constitutional defects of the ban, it is ultimately poor strategy for a policy that, given the most generous benefit of the doubt, is ostensibly meant to guard against terrorism. The reality is that American liberal education is one of the very best antidotes against the feeblemindedness that gives entry to the fundamentalist tropes of ISIS or Al Qaeda.
In their bipartisan Middle East Strategy Task Force report, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and former National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley affirm this, and note that an essential strategic goal of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East is to ensure that the next generations of students in the Middle East are "informed critical thinkers resistant to extremist appeals." Denying students access to American universities, which offer the gold standard in critical-thought instruction, therefore also denies us one of the most powerful tools in our counterterror arsenal.
For those students like Niki Mossafer Rahmati, an undergraduate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who went home to Iran for winter break and now cannot return to campus, the situation is more difficult. Still, there are ways colleges can continue to support these students’ learning. Through new technology, they can offer distance-learning options for those unable to return to campus, providing video links to lectures and classes and relaxing physical-presence requirements.
Those institutions with branch campuses abroad, such as New York University with its Abu Dhabi facility, can arrange for students to relocate. Universities without branch campuses might create consortia with those who do, and make arrangements for credits to easily transfer, perhaps even offering to rotate willing faculty to the campuses abroad.
The ban is also a wake-up call for the need to encourage liberal education in those places abroad where it is most needed. This is not a new mission, and in fact has been under way since missionary scholars founded the American University of Beirut in 1866, the first of a series of liberal-arts schools in the Middle East that would become leading institutions in their own right.
But perhaps the most important set of measures that American colleges should take now is to get organized for a long political battle against the forces of fear and isolationism that lurk in open sight behind the recent order. American institutions need to partner with local and national civil-liberties groups, joining their lawsuits to battle discrimination.
At the same time, colleges need to reach out to the grassroots community organizations, like Rotary International, that have traditionally supported the welcoming of students from abroad. They also need to let their Congressional representatives know in detailed terms the impact of such arbitrary actions — the impact on their students, the impact on budgets, and the chilling impact on recruitment of the best students, professors, and researchers.
Ultimately, however, what is implicit in all this is the need to gird for the risks inherent in taking on the federal government — a major source of both direct and indirect funding for virtually every institution of higher learning. Although the lack of such funding might make the mission of the university difficult, the alternative — a full collapse of the principles of the academy — will render it impossible.
Richard LeBaron is a nonresident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council. He served as U.S. ambassador to Kuwait from 2004 to 2007. Jessica Ashooh is deputy director of the Atlantic Council’s Middle East Strategy Task Force.