Harvard is one of several US universities that intend to move some course instruction online this fall © Bloomberg

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Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have sued to block Donald Trump’s attempts to eject international students from US universities if their courses move fully online because of coronavirus. 

In a lawsuit filed in the US federal court in Boston, the two prominent US universities jointly requested a temporary restraining order and permanent injunction to stop the policy announced Monday, which said foreign students whose courses were now online only should either leave the country or transfer to a course with in-person teaching to maintain their lawful status. 

“The order came down without notice — its cruelty surpassed only by its recklessness,” said Harvard president Larry Bacow. “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.”

In their court filing, the universities argued that the change would leave “hundreds of thousands of international students with no educational options within the United States”, as most would be unable to transfer to another school on such short notice.

“Moreover, for many students, returning to their home countries to participate in online instruction is impossible, impracticable, prohibitively expensive, and/or dangerous,” they added. 

The two universities, which attract about 9,000 international students to the US on F-1 academic study visas each year, argued that even if students were able to return home, they might find it difficult to take part in online learning from different time zones. 

“Our international students now have many questions — about their visas, their health, their families and their ability to continue working toward an MIT degree,” MIT president Rafael Reif said. “Unspoken, but unmistakable, is one more question: Am I welcome?”

Later on Wednesday, Princeton and Cornell said they would submit briefs to the court in support of the universities’ case. Princeton said it was “exploring other legal and policy options, as well as other university actions that might solve the problems created by ICE’s announcement.”

Colleges and universities across the US have been grappling with how to safely return students to campus amid worries that moving too quickly could spark a fresh wave of infections, with many opting to offer teaching either wholly or partly online.

Harvard and MIT said that “after careful planning” they and several other US universities had decided to carry out “most” of their autumn 2020 term online to protect the health of students, faculty and staff — but that the new immigration ruling had thrown them “into chaos”. 

Mr Trump in particular has been keen to get students of all ages back to school this fall, as he hopes to revive the US economy after months of lockdown. Asked during a White House event on Tuesday about Harvard’s decision to offer online courses, the US president said: “They ought to be ashamed of themselves.”

While Harvard and MIT are the first universities to sue, other universities have been planning to address the new rules by ensuring they offer all students, including internationals, a minimum threshold of in-person teaching to allow them to maintain their immigration status.

Columbia University in New York City said that as it made decisions about the structure of its courses for the upcoming academic year, it would look to offer “hybrid” online and in-person courses to “alleviate the negative effect of these new regulations on Columbia students.” 

“We want our international students to be able to complete their studies here, if at all possible,” Columbia president Lee Bollinger said in a letter to students. 

Amherst College in Massachusetts, which had already planned to offer a mixture of online and in-person teaching, said it “can and will” have its international students present on campus and enrolled in classes involving in-person elements.

Caltech called the rule change “deeply troubling” and said it was “carefully considering the implications” of the order for the new academic year. It said it would develop a teaching approach that “prioritises the wellbeing of all community members”. 

Bhaskar Chakravorti, dean of global business at the Fletcher School, Tufts University, said international students were “caught in the crosshairs” as the US administration tried to underplay the severity of the coronavirus pandemic and “force” establishments and schools to be open. 

“Many of these students are exactly the kind of talent base America needs to draw on for its continuing health, and the health of the economy,” said Mr Chakravorti.

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