Wednesday, March 08, 2017

Universities as the United Nations

Three decades ago, about this time of the year was when graduate school in America was becoming a realistic probability.  In those dark ages before the internet, I had some anxiety-filled days waiting for the envelope in the mail.

I distinctly recall one evening in a hotel in Trivandrum, where my supervisor and I had gone to in order to meet with a few hospital staff--biomedical equipment were just about entering the Indian market and we were selling and servicing a few pricey ones.  The supervisor wanted me to split the room with him, so that he could use his per diem to buy alcohol.  I agreed--what else can an underling do!  That night, I could not sleep.  I kept walking up the window, looking out and worrying what might happen if the graduate school in America didn't work out.

Everything worked out fine.  When I gave the quit notice, my supervisor said that he knew I would not stick around for long.  He said that he observed me by the hotel window in Trivandrum!

I reached the building at USC that was all too familiar to me from all the correspondence: VKC--Von KleinSmid Center.  There were flags of various countries flying in the inner yard--flags of the countries from where students had come to USC.  It might have as well been the United Nations.  That building was home to me through all the years that I was there.

The one on the left, with the globe on top, is VKC

For the first time ever, I met students from countries that are now in the list of countries that have been banned by this president.  From Iran. From Somalia. From Syria.  Countries that are now in the banned list; what a fucking disaster this president has created!  It immensely aches my heart.  This is not the America that I had in mind three decades ago.  As the author of this essay notes:
For more than 75 years, the United States has been the destination for ambitious, talented, and leading young scholars who have wanted to live and work with the best colleagues and students. They have assimilated into an incredibly creative and adaptive set of universities. American-based scholars also collaborate with foreigners, bringing nations closer together.
 The author asks an important question: "Is this history about to end?"  That question aches my heart even more.
scholars and students may soon begin to self-select out of a chance to come to the United States. More than 70 years ago, Robert Hutchins, then the president of the University of Chicago, observed that the problem with witch-hunts was “not how many professors have been fired for their beliefs, but how many think they might be.” If the United States becomes less appealing to scholars from abroad, they may well stay home, depriving America of their talent. Fear and uncertainty have become the order of the day. Executive orders or legislation that represses immigrant groups often, historically, morph into laws against American citizens. None of this bodes well for those interested in studying, teaching, or conducting research at American universities.
What a loss it would have been if I had not met Shahab, who was from Iran!  Other names I no longer even remember--like that woman who was the first (and, to this date, the only) person I have talked at length who was from Somalia.  What a fucking disaster this president has created, and it barely six weeks in!


Ramesh said...

Yup. Its a spectacular own goal to bar talent from everywhere else in the world. But then, this was bound to happen. America was the "Promised Land" for about 5-6 generations. Its still is, but the allure is fading. Some other place or places will take its place, if you'll pardon the pun. That's the way of history.

What is more concerning is the rising intolerance to others virtually everywhere. That too might be a passing phase.

Sriram Khé said...

We--the global we--made two mistakes:
1. We became complacent about defending liberty. We assumed that the world would continue to move along the liberal-democratic trajectory.
2. We started putting businesses and profits before everything else. We made money-making the highest priority--even if that meant sacrificing liberty.
We are now suffering the consequences.

I can point to any number of blog-posts where I always have worried about both those issues. But, hey, when has anybody listened to me--even you almost always disagreed with me!

A "passing phase" this might be--like how the Soviet Union was a passing phase for seventy years!!! I have become way too depressed, like the dejected intellectuals in all those Russian novels :(

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