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Harvard president asks officials to reconsider Trump’s immigration ban

Harvard students held signs before a rally this past week.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff/File/Globe Staff

CAMBRIDGE — Some of the nation’s most accomplished academics gathered Sunday at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology with grave expressions and cardboard signs, spurred to the streets because they believe the president’s ban on immigrants will damage academic scholarship in the United States.

Students, professors, and staff at the elite university marched together across the Massachusetts Avenue bridge toward Copley Square to join others from across the region in a public outcry against the executive order that bans people from seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States.

While college officials spent the weekend trying to determine which students and faculty might be stuck abroad, confusion reigned over how the ban will affect international students here on study visas. And in the long term, academics said, Trump’s ban will hamper their research and hurt the economy.


“It’s certainly ill-judged and likely counterproductive,” said Richard Lester, a professor and associate provost for international activities at MIT, who attended the pre-rally gathering Sunday. “Our community is here because they are contributing research and new knowledge creation that benefits this country.”

The ban applies to people from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen and sparked chaos at airports across the world over the weekend because it lacked details on which people were barred.

University presidents sent e-mails to their campuses that urged all international students and professors to think twice before traveling abroad, and many urged those abroad to return to the United States, if possible.

Harvard University president Drew Faust issued perhaps the most forceful letter, calling on federal officials to consider the ban’s impact on universities.

“Our robust commitment to internationalism is not an incidental or dispensable accessory. It is integral to all we do,” Faust wrote, noting that nearly half of the university’s deans are immigrants.

The 1,500-word letter also said the university will hire its first Muslim chaplain at Memorial Church.


There are about one million international students in the United States, including a combined 17,354 from the countries affected by the ban, according to the latest data from the Institute of International Education, from the 2015-16 academic year.

There are 59,000 international students in Massachusetts, the majority from China, India, South Korea, Canada, and Saudi Arabia.

One official who works at the Department of Homeland Security in New England said attempts to get information from the agency’s top officials had been challenging, making it hard to provide answers to those affected.

“This is not who we are, this is not what we signed up to do, and this is not the United States,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because officials have been told not to speak with the news media.

At least two MIT students, one from Iran and one from Syria, were not allowed into the United States when they tried to travel back to campus Saturday, campus officials said. Doctoral student Tiziana Smith, who studies civil and environmental engineering, said one of her Iranian classmates made it back just in time.

“If she had just come back two days later, she wouldn’t have been able to come back,” said Smith, on her way to the Copley Square rally with a sign that said “No ban. No wall.”

Beyond their lab mates and colleagues, professors worried the ban will hamper the academic community’s ability to attract talent from abroad and discourage researchers in the United States from traveling abroad.


At MIT, 43 percent of faculty are internationally born and 42 percent of graduate students are international. To illustrate the diversity, one MIT researcher said that in her lab of 30 people, only three are US citizens. Three have Iranian passports.

At Harvard, Iranian doctoral student Mitra Akhtari said the past two days were among the worst in her life. Akhtari said she and her family came to the United States from Iran in 2001, six months before the 9/11 attacks. She is now a US citizen.

“We faced a lot of discrimination. We were called terrorists. But nothing, honestly, hurt as much as the last two days,” she said. “This is not by individuals. This is by institutions of the United States.”

Akhtari said she was heartened by the support she said she and other Iranians received from the Economics Department chairman, David Laibson, who urged the department to attend the rally Sunday.

Other Boston-area students have not been allowed back into the United States, including Behnam Partopour, an Iranian fourth-year PhD student at Worcester Polytechnic Institute.

Partopour said he lived in Worcester for three years, working as a research assistant at WPI before he left for Germany last summer for a research project. He then returned to Iran to wait for his US visa and had a plane ticket to return to the United States this week.

Now he doubts he will be able to board the plane. Several other Iranian students told the Globe Sunday that they were barred from boarding flights to the United States.


“I’m worried because I don’t know when I would be able to see people who I love again. I just want to go back and continue my work,” Partopour said in an e-mail Sunday.

Two Iranian professors at UMass Dartmouth who had flown to Paris for an academic conference were detained Saturday at Logan Airport but released three hours later, after an intervention by lawyers.

Once they were safely home, the university released a stern statement denouncing the ban.

“We want to be clear that we believe the executive order does nothing to make our country safer and represents a shameful ignorance of and indifference to the values that have traditionally made America a beacon of liberty and hope,” wrote UMass Dartmouth’s interim chancellor, Peyton R. Helm, and provost Mohammad Karim.

A UMass spokesman said the five-campus system has other faculty and students abroad but is not sure whether they will be affected when they attempt to reenter the country.

At MIT, the lobby of Building 7 cleared out quickly after the crowd headed to Sunday’s rally. In wandered a professor who came late.

Drazen Prelec, who teaches economics at the MIT Sloan School of Management, said the least the president could have done was give warning so professors could have planned their travel accordingly.

“There is really no silver lining here,” he said.


Laura Krantz can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @laurakrantz.