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Block the COVID-19 Transmission, but not the Global Intellectual Flow

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Wanzhu Shi and Matt T. Bagwell
March 24, 2021

In United States higher education, intellectual and highly skilled faculty from around the world have always played an important role. Faculty with different cultural backgrounds and lived experiences have greatly influenced cultural diversity within the academy. Increasing numbers of international students and faculty have brought a flourishing multicultural environment to universities across the country. But since the outbreak of COVID-19, this situation has been changed precipitously. Combined with a dangerous pandemic, many international faculty must bear additional burdens due to political instability, travel bans, potential violence and unjustified stigmas.

During the pandemic, international faculty, especially Asian faculty, must not only manage stress from work and life within a turbulent United States environment, but also must face the possible risks of being discriminated against and even verbally or physically assaulted. This discrimination has been incited by certain GOP politicians, including former President Trump, who has referred to COVID-19 as the “Chinese virus” among other unfounded, racially threatening, pejorative slurs. The Stop AAPI Hate, an organization supported by the Asian American advocacy group, released that there were 1,990 anti-Asian harassment incidents and 246 assault cases between March and December of 2020 in the United States. In Los Angeles County alone, there were 245 criminal incidents, 186 (76%) involving verbal harassment; and women reported a rate more than twice that of men. Even today, these incidents continue to rise.

These incidents occurred across the United States, from public transportation to higher education. At a South Florida University, a professor wore a hat in support of Donald Trump, which referred to the virus as “the Chinese virus” and “Wuhan virus” in front of an entire class. Imagine how an international student or faculty would feel when someone is subjected to this kind of prejudice, bullying and bigotry. This incivility is abhorrent to its core, and should be condemned unequivocally. Groundless hostility and xenophobia place the lives of international faculty and students at greater, unneeded risk. 

Unfortunately, this is not the first time that immigrants were discriminated against and became victims of worldwide events. During World War II, the internment of Japanese Americans was implemented and forced Japanese migrants into detainment camps, even though most were innocent civilians. Similarly, in the aftermath of 9/11, many Arabs, South Asians and Muslims in the United States were wrongly targeted. This damaged trust in community cooperation and setback diversity in the United States for years. As public affairs researchers, we seek to understand the struggles encountered by international employees within our university communities.

Related to this topic, we conducted a study on faculty work-life balance during the pandemic. The preliminary research findings uncovered that international faculty faced more challenges; their immigration paperwork was frozen, and many were concerned with job security, economic conditions and continued uncertainty about their place in United States academics. One survey respondent shared that due to the Trump administration’s halt on processing immigration paperwork, her permanent residency application was delayed, which could have negatively impacted her employment status. Another respondent revealed that her international colleagues had to talk to their chairs, deans and other administrative staff continuously regarding their immigration paperwork. The respondent explained that some administrative staff were not always aware of unique legal hurdles that international faculty face. She stated, “It seems like the administration does not care about it,” unless she persistently followed up. While international faculty were handling many challenges, it seems as if some of their institution’s administrative leadership may have overlooked their plights.

In spite of these troubles and uncertainties, international faculty may find that achieving “The American Dream” requires extra effort. International employees, like other minority groups, need assistance and institutional policies that are fair and equitable, especially when they are at an imbalanced and potentially prejudicial disadvantage. After the turbulent year of 2020, academia must be aware, attentive and responsive to the needs of international faculty in order to continually attract and retain highly qualified professors in the ranks of United States universities.

It remains vitally important that international faculty feel that they have a seat at the table among higher education institutions. Immigration in the United States is a cornerstone of our collective values, not an ideal to be viewed with distain and violence against those that contribute to lifting us up as a nation of civil rights and liberties for all. Higher education institutions must let their international faculty know that they are indeed highly valued and regarded with esteem and respect in order for us to imbue our students with the best knowledge that United States higher education has to offer everyone around the globe.  

We recommend an increased research focus on the international community within higher education to promote a diverse and equitable environment for all, especially for those who are vulnerable to discriminatory prejudice, as hate crimes are egregiously unjust. Future research should explore innovative ways of including culturally integrated policies within universities, other organizations and American society itself. We hope these suggestions help to balance liberty-security dilemmas, bring awareness to university communities and relieve racial violence brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States.


Wanzhu Shi is an Assistant Professor in the Social Science Department at Texas A&M International University. Her contact information is [email protected]

Matt T. Bagwell is an Assistant Professor in the Division of Public Administration at Tarleton State University. His contact information is [email protected]

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