The U.S. Department of Homeland Security announced on Thursday the formation of a new council to advise Secretary Janet Napolitano on student-visa issues and other security-related topics that affect academe.
The high-level commission, comprising 19 university presidents and academic leaders, is one of the most prominent signs of greater responsiveness to higher-education concerns by the department since it came in for criticism for regulatory loopholes and enforcement lapses that allowed little-known and unaccredited institutions to enroll thousands of international students in questionable degree programs.
In addition, Ms. Napolitano has created an Office of Academic Engagement to coordinate departmentwide efforts on issues related to higher education, including international students, professional training, and university-based homeland-security research.
The new office and advisory council are among the department's priorities under Ms. Napolitano, said Lauren Kielsmeier, the office's executive director. We wanted to better "connect the dots across the department in all the ways in which we have a nexus to academe."
The new commission, which will hold its first public meeting March 20, is charged with providing advice and recommendations to the secretary and to senior department officials. Among its members are Rufus Glasper, chancellor of Maricopa Community Colleges, John E. Sexton, president of New York University, and Holden Thorp, chancellor of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The heads of the American Association of Community Colleges, the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities, and Nafsa: the Association of International Educators will also serve on the panel.
"I think the commission is valuable for higher education and for the department to hear our concerns," said Wallace D. Loh, president of the University of Maryland at College Park, who will be chairman of the group. He said he hoped the commission could make recommendations to Homeland Security to help it "get that right balance" between welcoming foreign students and scholars and protecting national security. As the president of a campus that is home to a major national center for the study of terrorism, he said he also would be interested in discussing homeland-security-related research and curriculum.
One issue panelists are certain to weigh in on is the department's oversight of the student-visa system, in the wake of raids on institutions in California and Virginia that admitted large numbers of Indian students on the promise they could work in the United States. (The owner and operator of one of the institutions, Tri-Valley University, has since been charged with visa fraud.)
Many agree that the key agency that oversees the system has historically been hampered by limits on its resources and authority. The agency, the Student and Exchange Visitor Program, or SEVP, must monitor some 10,300 schools and colleges authorized to admit foreign students, a system financed by fees on institutions and students.
While Homeland Security officials said they could not comment on continuing investigations or law-enforcement activities, Louis M. Farrell, SEVP's director. said in an interview that he has restructured his agency to more nimbly respond to criminal and law-enforcement cases.
For one, he has reassigned more than 20 employees to a special analysis and operations center. Mr. Farrell said the new unit is able to focus in a dedicated and coordinated way on problem cases, bringing together, for example, employees who monitor institutions to ensure they are complying with immigration rules and those who analyze visa data to spot troubling trends. While Mr. Farrell has thus far reallocated staff to the operations center, he said he may ask for additional resources.
Meanwhile, Mr. Farrell hopes to triple the number of investigative agents in the field, to 234, by the end of the fiscal year. He also plans to triple the number of staff members who certify and recertify colleges and schools and double the number of government contractors hired to analyze cases. "With more resources, we can be more aggressive," he said.
Mr. Farrell's agency is also increasing its outreach to colleges through a team of 60 new regionally based liaisons. By better educating students and college officials about visa rules and more quickly responding to administrative glitches, SEVP will "be able to spend its resources on real but rare bad apples," he said.
The new personnel are made possible by an increase in the fees levied by the agency. But Mr. Farrell argued that his agency is benefiting not just from money but from the new attention to education-related security and immigration matters. "Having a department focus on this," he said at an international-education conference in January, "is ungodly good for all of us."