International Flip-Flop

The recent Harvard University policy prohibiting granting of academic credit or funding for study by Harvard College students to countries on the U.S. State Department “Travel Warnings” list, which currently encompasses 25 countries from Indonesia to Kenya, is unfortunate (see “College Deters Travel to More Countries,” Harvard Crimson, December 2, 2004). While heightened security concerns require a sensible assessment of the attendant risks of any travel, this policy is excessively narrow and short-sighted. It effectively circumscribes the ability of current students to pursue a key avenue for personal growth, academic inquiry and broader international exposure. It runs counter to the goal of providing undergraduates with a “substantial international experience” highlighted by Dean William Kirby and undermines, the “reliance on the authority of ideas” that President Summers underscored as central to the University’s success. Both these notions were advanced in recent contributions to the Harvard Magazine [“John Harvard’s Journal” and “From the President,” November – December 2004].

This policy is extreme for several reasons. First, the existence of U.S. State Department travel advisories does not delegitimize areas of academic inquiry in such places. If, as President Summers contends, the “reliance on the authority of ideas” is what drives the University’s success, constraining which ideas see the light of day through the lens of State Department travel advisories is unhelpful and contradictory to the liberal arts education that draws so many young people to study at Harvard. While it is important for adequate measures to ensure safety of student researchers, this policy in effect subsumes the academic research interests of students to the whims of the U.S. State Department. After all, if security is the core issue, then what guarantees that Kenya is no less safe than Spain, a recent target of terrorist attacks, which is not on the State Department watch list? In addition, many of these countries on this watch list, such as Indonesia and Israel, are those that need our active engagement in the marketplace for ideas. What of countries that are not on the watch list yet known to be prone to violence? Does subscribing solely to the State Department watch list exculpate Harvard from its duty of care in ensuring that students traveling to these countries are aware of the requisite risks?

Perhaps the biggest problem with this policy is the circumscribing of student’s opportunities to participate in a journey of academic and personal discovery that accompanies such international forays. Though this policy does not affect graduate students, having benefited tremendously from studying abroad during the thesis research experience as an undergraduate at Harvard, I believe that it is inconsistent and unfair that current students will be denied unfettered access to pursue their academic interests and ideas anywhere. While security concerns need to be addressed before such travel is undertaken, a more deliberative and case-by-case approach is required. As Salman Rushdie reminds us in Step Across the Line, “in a choice between security and liberty, it is liberty that must always come out on top.”