Director of International Students Office responds to international students op-ed
To the editor,
In an op-ed that appeared in The Tech March 3 (“We are international students and we are voting yes on the GSU”), some MIT Graduate Student Union (GSU) students raised concerns that MIT is not doing enough to support international students and asserted that a union can do more. When weighing these claims and considering how to vote in the April 4–5 election, international students should be aware of the following important facts, prepared by MIT’s senior administrators.
If the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE) is successful, they will need to negotiate a contract, called a collective bargaining agreement. Such agreements have limits to what they can cover. For example, it is illegal to bargain for contract terms that violate federal immigration law.
A collective bargaining agreement cannot make any changes to federal immigration law. MIT and its international students must follow federal immigration laws whether or not a union is elected.
Federal immigration rules state that expanded internships and experiential learning opportunities that meet the requirements for F-1 Curricular Practical Training (CPT) authorization must be done via changes to the curricula. Making changes to curricula is an academic decision that requires extensive input from various members of our community, including faculty, students, departmental administrators, and others.
Academic decisions are not mandatory subjects of labor bargaining, and are usually retained by the university (as they are at Harvard and Columbia, for example). Notably, the graduate student union contracts at Harvard and Columbia do not contain provisions regarding expanded CPT opportunities. As an outcome of the Task Force 2021, a joint faculty, student, and staff effort, MIT is already working on creating an Institute-wide professional development academic requirement for all graduate students. This would expand access to valuable internship, personal, and interpersonal skills development, and experiential learning opportunities for all students. In doing so, it would also provide expanded CPT opportunities for all F-1 international students, addressing this issue across the board.
MIT has a proven track record of fighting for international students, without any union involvement. During a time when the nation’s leadership was particularly hostile to international students, President Reif wrote the following in a New York Times opinion piece: “As a nation, when we turn our backs on talented foreign students, we not only lose all that they bring to our classrooms and laboratories, we also give up a strategic asset.”
In 2020, together with Harvard, MIT successfully filed suit against the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (USDHS) and its Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency to prevent enforcement of a policy that would have barred international students on F-1 visas from taking a full online course load while studying in the U.S.
Every year, MIT’s International Students Office (ISO) assists more than 4,000 students and their families with their visas. Getting things wrong can have serious implications. That’s why MIT has a dedicated, growing group of professionals who provide important guidance to students. Neither the MIT GSU nor the UE has this level of expertise and resources.
MIT’s ISO supports international students who need help to cover legal fee costs for student consultations with immigration attorneys, pays USDHS application fees, and helps with emergency flights home and short-term family housing needs. International students are also eligible to seek and receive emergency funds from a number of other MIT student support offices. If the UE becomes the sole representative of graduate students in the bargaining unit, we do not know how these matters will be handled in contract negotiations and what an article on international students might look like.
MIT approved virtually every request (either as is, or with some modifications) for remote international appointments during the pandemic.
During the pandemic, MIT dedicated $5.8 million and significant administrative resources to enable 1,300 requests for remote international appointments. This ensured that students did not face any interruptions to their academic and research progress and were able to continue their studies and research from abroad.
MIT’s remote international appointments process is equally (if not more) accommodating than the processes that were agreed to after several years of negotiations in the Harvard and Columbia graduate student union contracts. Under those contracts, remote international work is limited to situations where students are “unable” to return to the U.S. due to immigration issues or other reasons outside of students’ control. When that occurs, Harvard and Columbia have agreed to make “reasonable efforts” to enable remote work. MIT went above and beyond these measures to enable remote work during the pandemic for a wider range of reasons, even when students did not face absolute barriers to returning, in order to prevent negative impacts on students’ studies, research, and personal lives.
David C. Elwell
Associate Dean and Director of the International Students Office