October 6, 2003

Students, administrators discuss foreign student fees

Students gathered with administrators yesterday in Ida Noyes Hall to discuss the new $25 international administrative fee, in response to a letter voicing outrage over news that the charge will only be applied to international students. As a result of the meeting, the University will spread the fee—the result of newfound security measures—across the entire student body next year, charging $5 to all students.

Steven Klass, vice president and dean of students in the University, and Tamara Felden, director of the University's Office of International Affairs (OIS), called the meeting to address concerns of students and field questions from those in attendance.

The international administrative fee was put in place at the beginning of this quarter to pay for new costs put upon the University's administration by the federal government's Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS).

The first PATRIOT Act, Congress' response to the attacks on September 11, mandated that an automated system be created to track all foreigners studying in the United States.  The government provided no funds to pay for this new system.

The federal government has monitored international students for decades, but the Patriot act demanded that this system be revised and ultimately integrated with a larger system that would track all noncitizens in the country.  The information that is collected in this database consists of certifications that the student has the financial, linguistic, and academic abilities to study in the United States.

Academic institutions around the country were forced to scramble to make this new system work. The University had to create a database registering its approximately 2,000 international students, increasing the operating budget of OIS by 40 percent.

"It is important to realize that every aspect of dealing with international students was touched by this," Felden said. "The University had to upgrade all its systems to become interactive not only with SEVIS, but also with each other."

The University's administration originally viewed this cost increase as an extension of the costs required to travel or study in the United States, such as purchasing a visa. Consequently, the administration held only international students responsible for the international administrative fee. The University treated the new burdens to OIS's budget similarly to unfunded mandates from the city of Chicago, when, over the past few years, various changes in building codes forced the undergraduate housing system to increase the price of housing.

Many students disagreed with the University's stance, arguing that the new fee was a violation of the University's ideals of academic equality.  Several hundred members of the University community signed a letter expressing this idea, which was sent last quarter to President Don Randel and Klass.

"In a way, the administration was right," the letter that was sent to the administration stated. "This fee does indeed pay for a service.  However, this service is the very presence of foreign students at this university.  This presence is a service to the entire university community, not any one group."

Arik De, a student in the Harris School of Public Policy, voiced similar sentiments at the meeting.

"As members of this university we should have the same rights as everyone in the University," De said.  "If the ideals of the academy are to work, all students should be on the same footing."

Contrary to what might be expected, the majority of students in favor of a universal charge were American.

Klass made it clear that the University agrees with the concerned students in principle, but that the speed with which the government forced the University to comply forced the administration to act without input from students.

"The greatest priority is will a student's life get messed up because of something having to do with a visa. If that record is not OK, a student can get in a lot of trouble. What is on our minds is will any of our students get into trouble," Klass said.

According to Klass, when the first announcements about the new fee were made in the spring, there were relatively few e-mails in response.  Since the announcement came late in the spring—as students were preparing for finals and finalizing summer plans—most students did not notice the $25 fee.

Klass said he regretted that the timing of the decision caused a negative discussion to follow.

Monday's meeting began as a heated debate, but eventually settled into a calm discussion. By the end, most students and administrators came to a consensus that the cost of complying with federal mandates should be split equally among the entire student body.