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Middlebury College Professor Vows To Help International Students Avoid Deportation

Middlebury College Professor Jonathan Isham
Middlebury College, Courtesy

Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) announced Monday that international students pursuing degrees in the U.S. will have to leave the country or risk deportation if their universities or colleges switch to online-only courses this fall. A number of higher education facilities, including Harvard and MIT, are doing just that as a way to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.

Meanwhile at Middlebury College, some professors are promising to help students stay.

When Middlebury economics and environmental science professor Jonathan Isham heard the news, he took to Twitter and repeated and retweeted a growing call from other professors:  "I will do an in-person, face to face independent study with any Middlebury student that faces removal from the US because of this policy."

VPR's Mitch Wertlieb spoke with Isham about the controversy. Their interview is below and has been edited and condensed for clarity. They began by discussing the ICE announcement.

Jonathan Isham: Well I was horrified, but I suppose not surprised, because I think this is of a kind with other rulings from the Trump administration, in terms of what that administration thinks nationalism is.

Mitch Wertlieb: Is Middlebury planning to resume in-person classes this fall? Go totally online or employ some kind of a hybrid approach?

So it's hybrid. We have classes that will be online. A small handful, I believe, fully in person. And then many that will be hybrid. So take my plans, for example, Mitch. I'll be doing an introductory microeconomics course. I'll be recording my lecture, and then I'll do my best to meet with students in discussion sections in person.

The hybrid that Middlebury has embraced means that everything's on the table. Much of it at the discretion of the professor. Any Middlebury student will have choices that will involve learning face to face. It may not be in their major. It may not be the kind of courses that they would otherwise prioritize.

But there will be, as I understand it, courses that will be face to face and therefore would be a run around the ICE ruling.

But you're not sure about that yet? What I'm wondering is, if there is a foreign student who is at Middlebury currently, does that student have to take at least one in-person class to avoid this possible deportation? Do they have to take more than one? What have you learned so far about which students could be at risk here?

I don't know. Yeah, and I think that at this point we're all learning this. But many foreign students are here, because for a whole lot of reasons, they weren't able to go back to their home county. Professors like me will do our best to essentially create courses that are face to face for them. And I think that's the tweet you saw from me. I actually got that idea from my colleague Sarah Stroup in political science.

So they will know that professors will do whatever it takes. I feel very certain of that. Secondly, there will be on the books a large number of online courses. So given that the typical allocation of courses for a Middlebury student is four, you know, if the ICE people say only two have to be face to face, that's doable. It may not be easy depending on your major and the schedule, the list goes on.

But my read, and this is not authoritative, this is just my read, knowing Middlebury, knowing the professors, knowing the students, knowing how much we care for them, that it will be possible and indeed likely that we can accommodate every student.

This is all happening very quickly, but I'm wondering if you've heard from any students who are affected or potentially affected by this. Are you hearing talk through social media? You know, folks involved in Middlebury?

I just heard from a student right before you and I got on the line. He's based in India. Wonderful young man. He was asking about our winter term.... in which students just take one course over the course of four weeks. And as I understand it, that will be entirely online, given that the likelihood of a COVID breakout is higher mid-winter.

So this wonderful student of mine asked, given what I wrote publicly on Twitter about being willing to do what it takes: "Is it possible to get an online arrangement in January?" And my answer was, "I don't know."

So we're all trying to catch up. And I'm sure that's true for [Middlebury] President Laurie Patton and others in the administration as well. Harvard and MIT, you probably saw, have just announced a lawsuit to put a stop to all this.

Our students are remarkable. And I think international students at colleges and universities make these places the extraordinary places they are in so many ways. And so this professor is certainly going to go to bat. And I think as a group, faculty in Vermont will do the same.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or tweet host Mitch Wertlieb @mwertlieb

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