On Monday, Harvard unveiled a series of proposals to reshape its undergraduate curriculum for the first time in 25 years. Among the key components of the plan was an expectation that students will study abroad at some point during their four years at Harvard. "At this time of American influence and growing responsibilities in the world," said William Kirby, the dean who oversaw the plan's creation, "institutions such as Harvard bear a responsibility to educate its students to be knowledgeable and responsible as they go out in the world--to know the languages, to know the culture, the economics and the policies of the countries they will visit, to interact in a knowledgeable way." These are lofty goals, but they are made empty by Harvard's onerous restrictions on where students can study. Like other schools, Harvard does not grant funding, study abroad credit, or sponsorship to students violating State Department travel restrictions. If undergrads cannot visit those places where one truly learns about the dilemmas and difficulties that will confront the next generation of foreign-policy thinkers, then how can they be "knowledgeable and responsible as they go out in the world"?
Harvard is far from alone in restricting student travel. In the wake of 9/11, many schools began to force students to stay away from trouble spots and countries with State Department's travel advisories. I taught at Hebrew University in Jerusalem in 2001 and 2002, at the height of the Palestinian bombing campaign. The Rothberg International School, host to the university's study abroad programs, became a ghost of its former self as many students returned home.
For me, the restrictions on foreign travel that hit home most were imposed at Yale. I spent ten years in New Haven, rising from wide-eyed freshman to graduate student to history lecturer. Yale nurtured my interest in foreign policy, allowing me to combine academic study with real-world experience. Its decision to restrict foreign travel raised in my mind the question of whether we are educating a generation of students largely in ignorance of the world's most important trouble zones.
The almost 40 countries banned by Yale reads like a list of places students should be studying if they hope to influence academia or policy. Interested in studying genocide? Can't go to Kosovo. Post-war conflict resolution strike your fancy? Can't go to Afghanistan, Iraq, or Tajikistan. Pakistan is off limits. So is Nepal. And don't even think about studying Africa.
At Yale, the trouble started in November 2002, when Gustav Ranis, director of the Yale Center for International and Area Studies, decided to ban student travel to Israel, Gaza, or the West Bank with university-supplied or administered grants. Students wanting to supplement academic study with real world experience found themselves abandoned. Speaking to The Yale Daily News, Ranis said, "Certainly, what we want to do is ensure the safety of students and at the same time be sensitive to the needs of students to go on with their studies." Many students could not continue with their studies in New Haven, however. Yale's ban on travel to Israel coincided with a decision to slash university Hebrew language courses in response to declining enrollment. On November 26, 2002, I asked Lisa Anderson, then president of the Middle East Studies Association (MESA), about Yale's Israel travel ban at a Washington Institute for Near East Policy forum. She said she was unaware of Yale's ban--which extended to graduate students and faculty as well--but said she found it difficult to believe that a university would institute such a ban. Well, it had. But MESA has remained silent, preferring instead to dedicate its energy to eulogizing Edward Said and lobbying against federal oversight of government-provided grant money.
Yale's travel ban has expanded as administrators work to bring Yale's travel policy in line with State Department travel warnings. You can find an explanation of Yale's international travel policy here. "The University Faculty Advisory Committee on International Education has compiled a list of countries where travel risks are particularly high," the website reads. "The decision to travel to those countries rests with each individual. ... However, in the case of students of Yale College, the University will impose restrictions on travel to the countries on the list. The University will not sponsor undergraduate groups (e.g. sports teams, glee club), or award Yale-funded or Yale administered undergraduate travel grants and fellowships in these locations." Yale's actions are not just inconvenient but punitive. The policy continues: "Yale College will not provide formal courses or pre-approve credit for work taken there." This means that students who seek to study abroad in trouble spots risk not receiving credit for their courses. Better that they go someplace safe, like Saskatchewan.
The problem with using State Department warnings as a basis for these decisions is that they are vague, and often place entire countries off limits when problems are far more localized. In its warning on the West Bank, for example, the State Department neglects to mention that, even at the height of the current conflict, Jericho remained safe. Security precautions at the University of Haifa or the University of Tel Aviv make those campuses potentially far safer for visiting students than the relatively open doors of many schools in Europe, where militant Islam is on the rise.
When I visited New Haven last week, students ridiculed the arbitrariness of Yale's crackdown on travel. Students don't understand why they can't go to Tel Aviv, but can use Yale money to see Beirut or Damascus. Yale bans travel to eastern Turkey, a region which for several years has been safer than Morocco, Madrid, or rural China, none of which are banned. Yemen, which is banned, has seen a fatal kidnapping, but how many road accidents have killed tourists in Italy? Yale students are banned from 19 countries (including Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, Côte d'Ivoire, and Colombia) to which the Fulbright program sends its scholars.
Interestingly, while Yale administrators say they seek to make the university travel policy consistent with State Department travel warnings, they do not ban students from visiting countries defined by the State Department as sponsors of terrorism. The April 9, 2004 edition of the Yale Bulletin & Calendar announced that the Yale College Partnership for International Service would sponsor a trip to Cuba. Students may also travel to Iran. Or Syria.
Thanks to Yale, in 1996, I became one of the first Americans to study in the Islamic Republic of Iran, even as the country chafed under hardline rule. I left Yale four years ago to pursue a career in foreign policy, an option made possible by the university's willingness to support me while I traveled from Israel to Afghanistan. Yale allowed me to combine academic study with real-world experience. After 9/11, I worked for the Pentagon, which hired me in large part because of my experience in Iran, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Had I gone to Yale just a few years later, hand-wringing administrators would have stood in my way. Luckily, for the five years I traveled the Middle East using Yale resources and grants, administrators welcomed rather than hampered my desire to break new ground. I faced no restrictions; there were no bans.
In an age when lawyers overrule academics, Yale, Harvard and other schools seem content to mouth platitudes about the importance of international study, while redefining the meaning of "study abroad" in increasingly narrow terms. Administrators are correct to realize that the world is larger than New Haven, Connecticut, or Cambridge, Massachusetts. But it is also larger than England and France.
Michael Rubin is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.