In a little-noticed anti-terror initiative, the George W. Bush administration is trying to get colleges and universities to stop some foreign students from studying sensitive subjects. Educators fear they're being dragged into academic censorship.
"We have a responsibility to work with the government, and we're ready to do so, but we're afraid of being turned into course police," said Terry Hartle, senior vice president of the American Council on Education, which represents 1,800 public and private colleges.
The issue arose in October when Bush directed the government to prohibit certain international students from receiving "education and training in sensitive areas" involving the "development and use of weapons of mass destruction."
The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy is working with federal agencies to "identify sensitive courses of study."
A White House Fact Sheet issued with the presidential directive ordering the studies said: "A goal of the program is to prohibit the education and training of foreign nationals who would use their training to harm the United States and its allies."
Academic leaders say they are being largely shut out of what has become an internal government debate.
"They've got law enforcement agencies and national security and intelligence agencies who want to be more restrictive, and they have research and science and technology officials who are trying to explain how academic research works," said George Leventhal, policy analyst with the Association of American Universities. The group represents 63 universities heavily involved in scientific research.
Other nations are beginning to train more of their homegrown scientists, but the US remains a major destination for academics seeking advanced scientific or engineering degrees. A National Science Foundation report says the percentage of foreign-born scientists and engineers is growing at all degree levels in America, with the highest ratio, 45 percent, in engineering.
The White House says the government wants to work with the academic community.
"Recommendations that will come out of the interagency working group will include the academic and science community being consulted on the finer points of any final response," Kathryn Harrington, a spokeswoman for the White House Office of Science and Technology, said Tuesday.
Academic groups see more questions than answers.
"Once a student is granted a visa and tries to change from organic chemistry to biochemistry, what are we supposed to do? Move them out?" said Richard Harpel, director of federal relations for the National Association of State Universities and Land Grant Colleges.
"The more subtle but less obvious dilemma is of a student who may room with a person who is an American student ... in a sensitive area," said Harpel, whose organization represents 213 public universities in every state in the country.
An electronic tracking system to be in place by the end of the year is supposed to enable instant communication between the government and academic officials so the State Department and the Immigration and Naturalization Service are notified of any change in a student's visa status.
Changing college majors, leaving school, taking a job or getting married all involve changes in visa status.