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As tension with Trump grows, Harvard, MIT sue to protect foreign students studying in US

A pedestrian passed an entrance to Harvard Yard on Massachusetts Avenue in Cambridge.
A pedestrian passed an entrance to Harvard Yard on Massachusetts Avenue in Cambridge.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

Harvard University and MIT filed a lawsuit Wednesday to block a Trump administration plan that could bar hundreds of thousands of international students from studying in the United States — the latest front in what has become a ferociously combative relationship between the president and Harvard.

US Immigration and Customs Enforcement issued new rules this week that put international students at risk of deportation if their college courses are being conducted exclusively online this fall. The news came hours after Harvard announced that all of its undergraduate classes would be taught online and only 40 percent of its students would be allowed on campus due to fears that the coronavirus would spread.

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MIT took a similar approach the next day, announcing that it would bring primarily seniors back to campus in the fall, leaving most other students to study from home.

In the lawsuit, filed in US District Court in Boston, the universities argue the guidelines are designed to force them to reopen for in-person classes, even if they don’t feel conditions are safe.

“Its cruelty surpassed only by its recklessness,” Lawrence Bacow, Harvard’s president, said in a message announcing the federal filings. “It appears that it was designed purposefully to place pressure on colleges and universities to open their on-campus classrooms for in-person instruction this fall, without regard to concerns for the health and safety of students, instructors, and others.”

Harvard and MIT are seeking a temporary restraining order that would put the policy on hold for 14 days. Several other universities, including Princeton, Cornell, Northeastern, and the University of Southern California said Wednesday that they will be filling briefs in support of the restraining order.

Universities say the new guidelines would be disruptive to the more than a million international students who come to the United States every year to earn a degree. There are 77,000 international students with active US study visas in Massachusetts and another 32,000 in the rest of New England.

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ICE said it was unable to comment due to pending litigation.

But Trump hasn’t been shy about giving his take on Harvard’s plan to reopen for the fall.

On Tuesday, he blasted Harvard for taking “the easy way out” by holding classes online and urged schools and colleges nationwide to reopen even as some parts of the country face rising COVID-19 cases.

“I think it’s ridiculous,” Trump said of Harvard’s plan. “And I think they ought to be ashamed of themselves.”

As president, Trump, a graduate of the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, has often used Harvard as his sparring partner.

In April, Trump scolded Harvard for its willingness to take virus relief money from the federal government, even though it has a $41 billion endowment.

“They shouldn’t be taking it,” Trump said at the time. “They have one of the largest endowments anywhere in the country, maybe in the world, I guess.”

Trump won that match. Facing mounting criticism, Harvard eventually said it would not apply for the stimulus money. Several other wealthy universities followed suit.

Other federal agencies have also set their sights on Harvard in the Trump era.

The Justice Department notably backed the group that sued Harvard over its affirmative action admissions policy, alleging that the university discriminated against Asian-American applicants. The US Department of Education earlier this year launched an investigation into how Harvard, and other universities, reported billions of dollars in foreign funding.

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“Harvard is a soft target,” said Jeffrey Berry, a political science professor at Tufts University.

President Richard Nixon railed against the East Coast liberal elite establishment more than half a century ago, and in the Trump era that’s been condensed to mean Harvard, Berry said.

“It represents privilege and evokes resentment for working class white people,” Berry said.

Criticizing Harvard plays to Trump’s voters, many of whom believe that the elite establishment is dismissive of their concerns, he said.

But Doug Wead, a conservative commentator and author of “Inside Trump’s White House: The real story of his presidency,” said the hypocrisy of powerful institutions, such as Harvard, is what riles the president.

He noted that Harvard’s students were critical of Trump’s response to hurricane devastation in Puerto Rico a few years ago, but that the university’s endowment has also benefited from the island territory’s debt, Wead said.

Many of Harvard’s professors and intellectuals have mocked and derided Trump’s policies, Wead said.

For example, former Harvard president and economist Lawrence Summers described Trump’s budget forecasts as inflated and compared them to believing in tooth fairies, Wead said.

Yet the economy has done well through most of Trump’s presidency, he said.

“He was especially amused and contemptuous of the hypocrisy,” Wead said. “The president’s relationship with lots of institutions and power centers is contentious. Not just Harvard.”

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But Harvard, in particular, offers Trump an easy opportunity to send a message to both his supporters and other institutions, said Theda Skocpol, a professor of government and sociology at Harvard.

Attacking Harvard’s reopening plan and issuing the new visa guidelines for international students allow Trump to warn all colleges and universities that they should be reopening their campuses, Skocpol said.

It’s easier than calling up individual public university and small college presidents, and angering local communities by pushing them to bring all students back, even if they’re not ready, Skocpol said.

“It’s a cheap way to do that,” Skocpol said. “All the universities get the message. . . . Harvard is used to send signals.”

Skocpol said Trump’s criticism isn’t exclusively about Harvard’s reopening plan, but more generally about what higher education is planning to do for the fall. By significantly reducing the number of students returning to campus, the institutions are indicating they feel the health risks are too great to operate normally — which is contrary to the president’s message, Skocpol said.

Still, rarely have modern presidents targeted a single institution as Trump has Harvard in recent years, said Erin O’Brien, a political science professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston.

Even as a businessman Trump was an outsider among New York’s elites, and resentment of that seems to have extended toward Harvard, O’Brien said.

“I can’t think of a sustained attack on one prestigious single university,” O’Brien said. “Going after Harvard for him is a two-fer — he genuinely dislikes them . . . and his base feels quiet similarly.”

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John Ellement of the Globe staff contributed to this report.


Deirdre Fernandes can be reached at deirdre.fernandes@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @fernandesglobe.