Connecting Pacific Episode 3: Fear and Anger

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Don Hicks: You absolutely have to agree that getting to know other people around the world makes the world a better place, demonizing them, calling them the other, making them alien, making them foreigners contributes to hate, contributes to misunderstanding and drives us towards violence.

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Hans Anderson: This is Connecting Pacific. A podcast from the University of Michigan of personal stories and perspectives about the changing relationship between China and the United States. I’m Hans Anderson.

This episode we are going to talk about President Trump’s frequently-changing policies directed at international students and how that might impact us here at the University of Michigan.

Anderson: Professor Mingyan Liu is the Chair of Electrical and Computer Engineering here at the University of Michigan. She came to the
U.S. from China for graduate school.

Mingyan Liu: So I came to this country in 1995. That’s the year I graduated from college. I think the higher education in the United States was, and I think continues to be regarded very highly around the world. So coming to the US for graduate education was, you know, [a] very common thing to do.

So I actually came here, I only wanted to get a master’s degree and then I was talked into getting a PhD degree by my advisor. And then I was talked into considering an academic career. It wasn’t on my radar.

I was looking for an industry job. Then, you know, I interviewed at Michigan along with a couple other places and I got the offer. I decided to give it a try and see if I would like teaching. And I did.
Then academic career, it wasn’t something I actually thought about, because the vast majority of my, say, peers at the time, this was 2000, right before the dot com boom, [the] job market was very good. So the vast majority of my peers were getting industry jobs and some of them got them before they graduated and they basically left for the job.

Anderson: Hanzhang Pei is a current Ph.D student studying Electrical and Computer Engineering.

Hanzhang Pei: So I first came to this country in 2013.  The reasons were mostly for the overall strength of the education here. I did believe that the higher education in the US is diverse and the courses are very hardcore. And I was able to get a chance to work with some world-class research groups. And I did have the chance to do that.

So right now I am wrapping up my PhD in the ECE department. And afterwards, I am planning on joining one of the MBB management consulting companies in the U.S. And I’m very grateful because overall the mass environment and also my surrounding friends actually support this kind of, you know, option. So I have many paths to take and decide to go with this path.

Anderson: Professor Liu, how has the relationship between the U.S and China changed since your arrival [in] 1995, how has that affected higher education in your opinion?

Liu: I think narrowly speaking, if we [are] just looking at Chinese students, I think students are generally much more aware of the state of affairs. I think when I came in 1995, I probably barely noticed who was president of the United States. I think students these days are generally much more aware because it is having an immediate impact on them.

I will also say, some students are getting very distracted. Students that we currently have here on campus because of the uncertainty. And I think, to the point of impacting some of the students’ ability to focus on their research and graduate studies.

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Anderson: Where were you when you heard about this proclamation and how did you react?

Pei: I first read about it through the news. I knew something really bad is going to be announced soon. And I did see my undergrad institution on the list from the article from the New York Times. And I also watched Trump’s proclamation live.
It was a White House live event, so I did watch it. And afterwards I spent the most horrifying weekend I’ve ever spent in this country, worrying that I’ll be deported anytime. So I had to learn about all of that, but I was, I was here.

It was very shocking and I had to immediately learn about all the deportation procedures to,  you know, know what are the things that I might go through and know how to protect myself. Then I learned all about the immigration court, the lawyers and everything. So that was new. But by then, knowing more information, calmed me down a bit.

And as for my peers, I do have some peers that are also whose university is also on the list. So we’re kind of just… talking with each other to catch up with what’s really going on. And I think for the mass audience, because especially for the University of Michigan, we have quite a few Chinese students. Once this started,  some university students can be treated differently, then it will be a very bad start because they can be quickly expanded to other universities or even the entire STEM field,  they use the same excuse as, you know, just preventing technology from being transferred from the US to different countries. So, we are all very concerned and we believe that we are on the same boat, probably at different stages, but overall were facing the same challenge.

Liu: I learned about it through an email coming from my colleague, pointing to the New York Times article. So this was ahead of the official proclamation. And then in that article, of course, an explicit list of institutions were caught out.
I think my immediate reaction was one of concern for the students in our graduate program, who, you know, may have received their undergraduate degrees from one of these institutions on the list. And so I was very worried about what was going to happen to them. I didn’t know how many were impacted.

Anderson: Don Hicks is the founder of Llmasoft. He is a West Point graduate, army veteran and UM Ross alumnus. When we reached out to him, he responded that this is an issue he is very passionate about. And he wanted to talk to us. Let’s hear what he said.

Hicks: I married an immigrant, and every business that I’ve founded, I’ve had key business partners and the leaders and those have come from other countries. I’ve also had some that were born in the United States. When I think about the impact, if that would have been threatened, how my own personal life would have been completely different. And I’d like to think that we’d all be worse off if we hadn’t had those businesses. I mean, my kids wouldn’t be here if we had some of the egregious immigration policies that are going on right now.
And my own wife has at times been threatened and harassed at the airport at Detroit Metro. When she comes back saying “I was surrounded by seven agents asking me what I’m doing here”. And I’m like, wow, everybody, even people with green cards are terrified about what’s going on.

I think the broader US public right now doesn’t understand how much we’ve turned away from what America is supposed to be.
People who are immigrants, legal immigrants are scared and they have reasons to be scared because there’s a lot of people painting targets on their back, and people who happen to be coming from China have big targets on their back, but they’re not the only ones. I have several folks I’ve worked with in Llamasoft and in my current portfolio companies who came from the Middle East, for example, and they’re just trying to keep their heads down.

It’s scary that this is not the America that I grew up with. We’re making people feel not only unwelcome, but actively terrified. And that has got me angry. Downright angry. It’s not only the anger of I’m disappointed and ashamed of this country’s turn towards treating other people poorly, but I also got the anger of someone who’s now seen it. Personally, friends, people I care about good people being made to be afraid by a minority group in the United States, who are anti-immigration mostly out of fear, a good portion of it is racist and xenophobic. And I think we need to start calling it what it is.

Anderson: Trump asserts these Visa restrictions are necessary because Chinese government is infiltrating US universities, and the proclamation will protect American scientific and technical advances. Will it do that? What effect will it have?

Liu: I don’t doubt their espionage activities going on from countries. I don’t know if the amount is disproportionally high from China. I think it does seem that the Chinese researchers and nationals are the primary targets by the federal agencies at the moment.

Within the higher education context, I think the vast majority of the publicly reported cases I have seen, the charges center on a failure to disclose, you know, relationship with funding sources from a foreign country. I do think that full and honest disclosure is very important, especially for a research institution like ours, because that’s the only way that we can be transparent and held accountable for how we manage conflicts of interest.

And the disclosure is first and foremost, the responsibility of a PI. I think certainly in our department, we work very hard to make sure that PIs know what a conflict of interest is and make sure they disclose all necessary relationships.

Pei: I want to mostly second professor Liu’s answer. I do believe even from what I’ve read, the majority of such kinds of accusations have been failure to disclose like professor Lieber from Harvard. It was accused just because of not having a fully disclosure of affiliations.
Other than that, I do believe most higher education, most research institutes regarding their research are sealed… So it’s open access and, and it’s open and it’s published. Everyone can read it anyways. And if the research [is] confidential to start with, then international students are not allowed. I do believe in some of the nuclear or defense related research labs. So it should not be a concern.

Liu: I think that is true. If there is a classified project, I think both the PIs and students involved in the project will have to go through the clearance process. And if they don’t have that, then they cannot work on the project. I think there are certain DOD projects that require citizenship.

Hicks: What I will say is I think there is a legitimate point to the fact that the Chinese government is actively trying to infiltrate, get information, get intellectual property that belongs to a lot of other people and steal it and take it back to China. Anybody in the software industry has seen Chinese hackers, Chinese IP problems, people trying to take it. The IP rules in China are very, very different than how they are in the United States. There is not really a cultural acknowledgement that rights of non Chinese citizens to own IP should be respected in any way.

And that is a problem. But demonizing everybody who happens to be from China is exactly the wrong way to do it. When I first got into the software business 20 plus years ago, basically what we had the rule of thumb was you’ll only ever sell one copy to a company in China. Because once it gets there, it’ll simply be distributed. It has changed as China has, as the economy has evolved.
People buy it, they, many of these companies, maybe I would say most seem to follow the rules. They do licensing deals. They there’s, you know, it has gotten much, much better as China has more or less joined the world. I mean, almost everybody that I’ve met from China is trying to study something, do something.

I mean, they’re just regular people. I think we have to acknowledge that the Chinese government has an agenda and they play by different rules. Although we do the same thing and you don’t really hear about it and talk about it. I think we should be protective, but trying to sort of punish everybody for our potential failures on a security standpoint. It is a really counterproductive approach.

Anderson: The special visas we are talking about in this episode are not like travel visas, they are offered to people with special skills and interests. The idea of this is that we should encourage people to come here, innovate, start businesses and generate wealth in this country.

Liu: So when we started the company. One of the lead authors on the key paper and the patent was actually a graduate student from China.
He was approaching graduation. Now you probably know that as a startup, we would not have the ability to sponsor immigrant visas, H visas and beyond. That I think was, and perhaps continues to be a deterrent for a lot of foreign students to step into entrepreneurship because they’re probably all favor going to a larger company that can sponsor their visa.
Because it’s very hard to convince a foreign student to be engaged in a startup exercise that you have a limited period of OPT once you run through that. And you know, most startup companies fail. It’s a very, it’s a very high risk for them to take. And so that discouraged a lot of them from entering the startup ecosystem.

Pei: It is a very risky choice because as international students, we already have a lot of restrictions in terms of the visa and the legal status in the country. And with this ongoing proclamation and just this negative trend, we know that we will be further restricted in terms of those, like we know that even STEM OPT can be put on hold or an entire OPT program can be affected. And with all that considered, I do believe many international students were leaning towards more safe choices and that will be a larger corporation with a full legal team.
So that will be quite a blow for startups because they need talent just as much, but there will be a rising concern for international students just because of the legal status and all of the situation that’s going on.

Anderson: When I spoke to Don, I heard he really enjoyed being here at the university, because he finds great talents for his companies coming out from the universities. Let’s talk to him about his experience in hiring international students.

Hicks: I’ve had great experiences hiring students who came here. When I hire immigrants by the way, I am looking at everybody, I don’t look at their immigration status. It’s never been an economic decision of is this one person cheaper or more expensive?
All of my software startups are around doing innovative things that haven’t been done before. And then, you know, that’s how we created 700… 800 jobs by now at Llamasoft. How many of those are US citizens, you know, 80%. But that 20%, you know, roughly 200 out of the 800, without those guys, that company would not have created all those jobs and all that value. Absolutely essential.

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Hicks: My experiences have been that the university environment is a tremendous mixing melting pot. Maybe part of the reason is because, if you wanted to move to the United States, just to try to get a job, good luck to ya. But there are programs in place that let people from around the world gather together in a place like Ann Arbor, which is a little bit of a microcosm of the world. You know, when I first started spending time in Ann Arbor, you know, right when I went to grad school here, I was amazed at all the different voices, the different accents, the different languages that I heard, the mixing that was here.Very very different from obviously the army environment. And it was stimulating and exciting and I’m in a class, taking statistical physics, statistical mechanics. There were people from everywhere around the world.And you immediately get exposed to what’s going on. You make that personal connection with somebody, and maybe it’s not so unusual that you might want to go sell your product in the UK or France or Germany or something like that because you met somebody or you met somebody from India who is, you know, might be able to be that connection for you.It’s super powerful. Bottom line is that clearly the university has a major, major impact in bringing people from all around the world and mixing them all up. And as I’ve said, my hypothesis is that makes the world a better, more peaceful place.

Anderson: That was Don’s experience at UofM in the 90s. Given that Chinese make up about a third of the international student body in U.S, universities, it is easy to imagine that the restriction Trump is imposing will have a noticeable effect on higher education in this country.

Liu: I think the biggest impact is perhaps in where students choose as a destination for their higher education. In parallel to that I think we also see other institutions perhaps viewing this as an opportunity to recruit students who would otherwise have come to the United States. And I think the net outcome of this is perhaps, in [a] larger share of foreign students, going to some of these peer institutions rather than coming here.

I think over the past, maybe five, seven years, I think it’s been a trend. I don’t know whether this proclamation is going to speed up that trend, but as being a trend where students, I think, increasingly heading for Canada, Australia and European countries. I think much more so than 20 years ago, 25 years ago when I was applying for graduate school, I think [the] United States was the top destination.

If you look at the trend over the past, you know, five more than five years also, I think a lot of our peer institutions in these other countries, they have been working very hard to recruit foreign students. I think they have, some of them done a very good job, um, improving the quality of grad education and outreach, you know, a good job in their branding. So I think that’s definitely a part of it. And then I think students are becoming more aware of more choices.
That’s also part of it. I think in the last few years, visa issues of course, was an issue even before this proclamation, we have yet to see how this gets implemented. But even before this,  there have been a very long processing time and  security check. And that has, um, prevented some students from getting here.

Pei: If I were a graduate from a Chinese undergrad, like say graduate from Harbin, HIT this year and I were to choose a destination for higher education.

Given the kind of getting more of a hostile environment in the US, especially from the government. I would be very concerned about all the visa restrictions or even myself being judged just by where I’m from. So I would consider a more like a neutral country, like Canada or Europe who are not directly in this friction between the two countries.
So, the US would be a lot less appealing given the uncertainty and also just the difficulties of getting, just getting visas to start with.

Pei: I’m grateful that the department is putting a lot of thoughts into protecting its students. I know there’s a really rapid response in the department trying to understand what’s going on with the proclamation. What are the impacts on the students? I feel very protected in this process, knowing that the department will try their best to protect the benefits of us, as even the subgroup of the many students. And I’m just really grateful that we have this community. And thank you!

Anderson:  I am Hans Anderson. This has been connecting Pacific. Thanks to Laura and Bernie for making this happen and thank you to my crew, Justin, Debing, and Siyin. Thanks to all of you for listening.

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