Stanford has joined 19 other colleges and universities in the western United States in a lawsuit challenging a new federal directive affecting international students, and also joined 58 other universities in a separate legal filing supporting another challenge to the federal directive.

In the first case, Stanford and the other western colleges and universities sued the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, seeking a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction to block implementation of the new rule limiting international students’ use of online coursework while studying in the U.S. In the second case, Stanford and other universities filed an amicus brief supporting a challenge brought by Harvard University and MIT.

“Our international students are essential members of the Stanford community, and this new rule creates unnecessary uncertainty and complexity for them,” Stanford President Marc Tessier-Lavigne said. “We are seeking the federal government’s support and flexibility as colleges and universities work to provide for both the health and the academic goals of our students amid the unprecedented circumstances that have been brought about by the pandemic.”

At issue is a July 6 directive by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security regarding the ability of international students who are in the United States on F-1 visas to take online courses.

Previous federal guidance issued in the spring had allowed these students additional flexibility to take online courses if needed due to the extraordinary circumstances created by the coronavirus pandemic. However, the new directive says that this fall, students on F-1 visas will not be able to take a full online course load and still remain in the United States. The directive is slated to take effect after being published in the Federal Register as a “temporary final rule.”

Stanford has been planning to have roughly half of its undergraduate student body and all of its graduate and professional school students on campus at any given time during the coming academic year, assuming public health conditions allow, but the university will have to offer many or most courses online. Other universities are similarly planning a “hybrid” model of educational offerings this fall, while some expect to be either fully online or fully in-person.

Two legal actions

In the lawsuit and motion for a temporary restraining order filed today in U.S. District Court in Oregon, the coalition of 20 western U.S. universities said the new federal directive had created “disarray” for international students studying in the United States and for their colleges and universities.

The universities argued that in reversing its previous course and issuing the new directive, the federal government failed to meet the “reasoned decision-making” standard of the Administrative Procedure Act. This “unwarranted and unlawful action threatens to disrupt the education of hundreds of thousands of hardworking students and their academic environments and missions,” the suit says.

The universities in the coalition along with Stanford are the University of Oregon, Oregon State University, University of Southern California, Arizona State University, California Institute of Technology, Chapman University, Claremont McKenna College, Northern Arizona University, Pitzer College, Pomona College, Santa Clara University, Scripps College, Seattle University, St. Mary’s College of California, University of Arizona, University of the Pacific, University of San Diego, University of San Francisco and University of Utah.

Similarly, the amicus brief in the Harvard/MIT case filed by 59 institutions including Stanford said the July 6 federal directive is “arbitrary and capricious” for four reasons.

“First, it entirely fails to address the reliance that schools and students across the nation placed on the government’s March 13 guidance, which afforded schools broad flexibility to navigate the current public health crisis,” the amicus brief says. “Second, it entirely fails to consider the dilemmas schools and students will face in conforming to the new policy, and does not explain why those dilemmas are justified. Third, it does not consider in any way the substantial compliance burdens it imposes on schools. Fourth, it includes no reasoned explanation for the new policy.”

A court hearing in the Harvard/MIT case is scheduled for Tuesday.

“We hope that we can quickly get a court ruling that will restore the flexibility that DHS wisely gave to universities in March to deal with this pandemic by providing online instruction for international students as necessary to allow them to continue their education safely,” said Debra Zumwalt, Stanford vice president and general counsel.

Supporting Stanford students

As legal challenges to the federal directive move ahead, Stanford is also working to assure international students that it will take the necessary steps to provide for their continued progress toward their academic goals.

“Our goal is to provide housing to all international students who are able to enter the United States and who have applied for housing, and to provide the coursework needed so that students can continue to make progress toward their degrees,” wrote Vice Provost for Student Affairs Susie Brubaker-Cole, Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education Sarah Church, and Vice Provost for Graduate Education and Postdoctoral Affairs Stacey Bent in a message sent to students today.

They added: “We will do everything we can to ensure students who are unable to enter the United States can continue their education remotely.”

The letter lists support resources available to international students, and it offers additional new informational resources:

  • Frequently asked questions: Stanford’s Bechtel International Center has published a set of frequently asked questions for international students on F-1 visas who have questions about the federal directive and its possible implications.
  • Town halls: Virtual town halls are being planned over the coming days to provide further information to those with questions. Details are in the vice provosts’ letter.

“To our international students, you enhance our university’s excellence and the richness of our community. We are here to support your health and safety as you continue toward realizing your academic dreams at Stanford,” the letter said.