“International exchange is a core value and strength of American higher education,” says Missouri State University President Clif Smart. He's referring to a letter sent by the American Council on Education, which the school has endorsed.
It was delivered on Jan. 31 to the U.S. Homeland Security Secretary in the wake of President Donald Trump’s executive order temporarily banning travelers from seven majority Muslim countries and all refugees. On Feb. 9, a federal appeals court declined to overturn a lower court's order suspending the president's ban.
Of MSU’s 1,700 international students, nine are from the seven countries listed in the order. However, all were in Springfield at the time it was issued. Smart says the school worked quickly to speak with each student face-to-face to account for them, and to make sure they understood the order’s ramifications.
“Some are graduating soon and frankly were extremely disappointed that family members won’t be able to travel here and see that ceremony,” he told KSMU.
Part of that discussion also aimed to reaffirm that these students are valued, a message Smart reiterated to hundreds attending Chinese New Year celebrations at the school on Jan. 28.
“We want international students here,” he says. “They make us better. They bring different perspective to conversations in class…When they interact with people of different backgrounds, cultures, religions it opens their minds and it lets them think about things differently. And that’s a good thing.”
He adds the university has a global mission, noting its student population is represented by 85 countries.
“The interaction we see is incredible. One of our faculty members told me about an experience in a political science class where he had an Iranian Kurdish student and an Iraqi war veteran and through the course of their interaction in class they became good friends. That’s the kind of things that happens that’s life-changing.”
Smart says neither he nor the university has taken a position for or against Trump’s executive order, adding “but nothing about it changes our focus on the value of international students nor on the importance of universities having a global mission.”
He admits the temporary ban brings more challenges in recruiting and retaining international students, especially Muslims.
“It’s our loss as a country and it’s our loss as a university.”
The immigration policy of the Trump Administration has prompted calls for sanctuary campuses, to offer protections for undocumented students, staff and family members facing the threat of deportation. Smart doesn’t believe that’s an option for the state’s colleges and universities.
“Essentially there are already statutory prohibitions to much of that kind of positioning among our cities, for example. And we recognize that we’re a part of government – we’re a governmental entity – and I just don’t think that’s a viable alternative.’
According to Smart, MSU’s Student Government Association earlier this month declined a resolution in support of a sanctuary campus.
“It doesn’t mean we’re not sympathetic to people…We have to function within the rules of a state university in Missouri and that’s probably not a viable option or something I’d support.”
So the messaging will come another route, he says. In March, Smart and other MSU officials will be in Washington, D.C. to advocate for international students.
He added, “While we certainly need to make sure that terrorists aren’t coming into the United States hiding out as refugees, and while we certainly need to protect our country and being vigilant of that, we’ve gotta do it in a manner that also doesn’t wreck our economy and doesn’t destroy our reputation in the world. And I believe we can do both.”