When Mohamed Malleck was 17 years old, in the midst of deciding whether to seek his undergraduate degree at the University of Toronto or Columbia University in New York, something cataclysmic happened that all but made up his mind for him: 9/11.
Malleck, a South African of Indian descent and a Muslim, had family in both cities, but the atmosphere in the wake of the terror attacks on the World Trade Center was rife with Islamophobia. He chose Toronto.
“Toronto seemed like a more welcoming environment than New York at the time,” Malleck, now studying for his MBA at Wharton, tells Poets&Quants. “Even though I had more family in New York and closer family at that, it was after 9/11, and the tone of the environment there kind of shifted.”
Now Malleck sees the tone shifting again, though this time it seems to be happening nationwide.
MOUNTING, AND FAMILIAR, CONCERNS
The uncertainty and chaos that followed President Donald Trump’s executive order to stop settlement of all refugees within the U.S. and block admission to the country of citizens from seven predominantly Muslim countries has abated somewhat, in the wake of a federal judge’s February 3 ruling that the ban be temporarily halted. On February 9, a three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the ruling, leaving Trump’s order blocked. But for international students studying for their MBAs at U.S. business schools, the specter of revoked visas and blocked entry to the U.S. still looms large.
Mohamed Malleck does not hail from one of the banned countries. But as a Muslim with family in India, he has seen this movie before.
“I had visited New York a couple times before for family holidays, and I had really enjoyed it,” he says. “But I did sense a kind of lack of belonging in New York (after 9/11), just because you’re a different color, a different background, a different faith. And I had also heard stories from my family and friends who kind of wore their religion on their sleeves, being affected, and that kind of put me off, so that’s why I went to Toronto. …
“I was in Toronto when Obama was elected, and I felt the elation at the time. For somebody who never really had any strong affinity to U.S. leadership or U.S. policy in general, it felt encouraging that this was a unifying leader at the helm of the superpower of the world. … But over the years since, on the ground, concern has been building up. There was a lot of vitriol during the shift in power from Bush to Obama, including some of the movements coming out of that like the tea party movement, and even the re-election was an issue.”
‘THE GENERAL REACTION AT HARVARD BUSINESS SCHOOL IS SHOCK AND CONFUSION’
“The signs were there and they were concerning. It’s easy to say in hindsight, but I’ve always felt the concern about the direction of the country. Even though America is a friendly nation and Americans are a welcoming people, but when it comes to internalization and underlying beliefs and ideologies, sometimes it is concerning for somebody who doesn’t quite fit in.”
Alula Eshete couldn’t agree more. The Harvard MBA candidate (Class of 2017), a first-generation American born to Ethiopian immigrants, is CEO of The Harbus, the weekly student publication of HBS. After Trump’s executive order, Eshete echoed his school’s administrators and most of the student body in lambasting the move, calling it “dangerous” and joining the thousands who protested in Boston’s Copley Square in the immediate aftermath.
“The general reaction among HBS students, like many Americans following the executive order announcement, has been that of both shock and confusion,” Eshete tells Poets&Quants. “Muslim students as well as those on visas are obviously concerned about the implications and what further directives might lie ahead, but even students who are not personally affected have expressed outrage. At the same time, for many U.S. citizens, this has been a bit of an embarrassment given the values the U.S. claims to uphold and the fact that 35% of the HBS student body is international.”
97 COMPANIES WEIGH IN AGAINST TRAVEL BAN
Trump’s order, titled “Protecting the Nation From Foreign Terrorist Entry Into the United States” and signed January 27, affects refugees from all countries for 120 days and all travelers from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Somalia, Sudan, and Yemen for 90 days. In the days after the president signed the order, four states sued the administration, dozens of lawsuits were brought by the American Civil Liberties Union and the Council for American-Islamic Relations, and more than 100,000 visa were revoked, government lawyers said Feb. 3 in a Virginia court; however, that same day, a federal judge on the other side of the country, in Seattle, granted a request for a temporary restraining order against the ban. Denying an emergency request by the White House, James Robart’s ruling was later upheld by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. Trump, via Twitter, immediately signaled his intention to appeal that decision, meaning the case is likely headed for the Supreme Court.
Even before Trump’s latest legal setback, on Sunday, February 5, more than 100 major companies — including such top Silicon Valley-based employers of MBAs as Facebook, Apple, Google, Uber, and Netflix, but also other major companies like Levi’s, Warby Parker, and Chobani — weighed in, filing a legal brief in the 9th Circuit condemning Trump’s executive order. “Immigrants,” the brief states, “make many of the nation’s greatest discoveries, and create some of the country’s most innovative and iconic companies. America has long recognized the importance of protecting ourselves against those who would do us harm. But it has done so while maintaining our fundamental commitment to welcoming immigrants — through increased background checks and other controls on people seeking to enter our country.”
Meanwhile, the impact of the order continues to be felt. Though there are few students and faculty from the seven affected countries in the top U.S. B-schools — the Financial Times found just 18 students, or 0.4%, and 50 faculty in the 80 schools covered by its annual ranking — tales abound of international students from other countries stranded abroad and unable to get back to school, and of faculty members hesitant to travel for research or other academic purposes for fear of being unable to get back into the country. International students overall make up just more than half of the applicant pool to U.S. business schools, and typically about a third of the actual class at top MBA programs, and strong solidarity trends can be seen in surveys of this group: Last October, just before the U.S. presidential election, a National Public Radio poll found that 60% of prospective international students planning to study abroad said they would be less likely to consider the U.S. if Trump were elected.
A SHIFT IN STUDENT MOBILITY MAY BE UNDERWAY
A vacuum seems to be forming, and some are eager to step into it. Echoing HEC Paris Dean Andrea Masini, who in December told Poets&Quants that he saw Trump as a potential boost to business schools in continental Europe, French presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron recently called on U.S. scientists, academics, and entrepreneurs to move to France, where they would presumably have greater freedom of expression and movement. GMAC data on MBA applicant trends has detected that one-year programs at INSEAD, HEC Paris, IE, Oxford, and Cambridge have growing appeal — the latter two despite Brexit, the UK vote to leave the European Union.
Canada, being closest in proximity, may be poised to gain the most from a shift in international students’ focus away from the U.S. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, in what has widely been seen as an express rebuke to Trump, has opened the door to refugees from all nations, a goodwill gesture certain to have resonance; while Canadian B-schools are vowing support for business and management students — among them the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto, which is reaching out to affected students and faculty and “exploring how it may be able to assist the broader academic community of scholars and students of business and management.” MBA applications to Rotman are up 22% at this point in the admissions cycle.
“We are very proud of our diverse and inclusive academic community of students, staff, and faculty here at the Rotman School, and we will certainly support our international students and faculty who may be impacted,” Dean Tiff Macklem says. “One of our core values is that we are committed to welcoming people from around the world based on their talent and skills regardless of their place of birth, religion, gender, and sexual orientation.”
INTERNATIONAL STUDENTS: A HUGE BOOST TO U.S. ECONOMY
Domestically, U.S. interest in the MBA degree has been on the wane since 2010, with the number of U.S. citizens taking the Graduate Management Admission Test dropping by a third between 2010 and 2015. This has led many of the more than 700 B-schools in the U.S. to lean heavily on international recruitment, with the number of foreign students taking the GMAT in the same time frame rising 19%, according to the Graduate Management Admission Council. Bloomberg Businessweek reports that international candidates accounted for 58 percent of the applicant pool at full-time MBA programs in the U.S. in 2015; in some cases top MBA programs can be comprised of as many as 35% international students.
International students overall contributed $35.8 billion to the U.S. economy in 2015, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce. Obviously, anything that slows the flow of talent to U.S. schools, including U.S. B-schools, will have severe negative ramifications, not just for the schools themselves but for the economy only as a whole.
Students from the seven countries directly affected by Trump’s ban who are studying all subjects at U.S. colleges and universities number in the thousands, says Rahul Choudaha, who co-founded the higher-education analytics website DrEducation. Most — around three-quarters, or 12,000 — are concentrated in graduate programs, he says.
Clearly, enrollment at U.S. schools will fall among students from the seven banned countries. But schools should also expect to see a drop in enrollment of students from other majority-Muslim countries, Choudaha says, such as Saudi Arabia and Turkey; those two, along with Iran, were among the top 15 places of origin sending international students in 2015-2016, according to the U.S.-based Institute of International Education (IIE).
The IIE studied growth among all international students in particular fields of study between 2014-2015 and 2015-2016 and found that business/management grew a meager 2% — a small increase compared to math/computer science (+25%), education (+10%), and engineering (+10%). Nevertheless, according to the IIE’s Open Doors study, business still represents the second overall field of study for international students (after engineering), with about 200,000 non-U.S. students enrolled at U.S. B-schools.