Open letter from University President Robert L. Barchi
On February 21, I met with students from across the University and with student leaders in an open forum sponsored by the Rutgers University Student Assembly, and I met again with students last night at a second RUSA-sponsored open forum. These events, in addition to the three town hall meetings I scheduled during the spring, are all part of our broad effort to elicit feedback from the University community for our Strategic Plan. At the February 21 meeting and again last night, I was heartened to see that one of the central concerns for students is an issue that I have been actively addressing for some time, namely affordable and accessible education. As someone who has dedicated an entire career to teaching and learning, I firmly believe that access to education is a fundamental right.
At the open forum, I was moved by two University students who shared personal stories about their experiences as undocumented immigrants and their paths through the public educational system. These students are examples in our local community of a pressing issue that faces us nationally. I reiterated to these students and to all in attendance my firm commitment to a comprehensive immigration policy that would enable students who are undocumented immigrants to have the same educational opportunities as their peers as long as they fulfill certain eligibility requirements. Providing a path for success in higher education must be something that we consider to be a national imperative.
Those of us who are members of academic communities appreciate the importance of education, and we value the inherent power of learning. Moreover, on a civic level, an educated citizenry means that the voting public is better informed on vital issues, which, in turn, ensures a healthy democracy. And, on an economic level, an educated workforce helps create a more vibrant economy. Indeed, as we continue to transition from an industrial to a largely post-industrial economy — one that is driven by technology and innovation — there has never been a greater need for an educated labor force.
As I detailed my commitment to comprehensive immigration reform during the open forum, a number of students and student groups invited me to add my voice to calls for pending legislation at the state level. I certainly applaud students both for their active engagement in the political process and, born of a real humanitarian need, for the passion they bring to this issue in particular. As I stressed during the open forum, my position differs from those of these students only in scope, not in spirit.
I have already indicated to policymakers and others that I would support the proposed state legislation if two changes were made. The first would address the unintended consequence of providing in-state tuition rates to any out-of-state student who attended a private or parochial school in New Jersey. Certainly, expanding New Jersey tuition rates to the residents of other states is not sound public policy. The second would address the possibility that a New Jersey high school graduate could, years after moving away from the Garden State, insist on in-state tuition rates for either undergraduate or graduate study. Those who move away from New Jersey and start lives in other states should not receive in-state tuition when they are no longer legal residents. These changes to the state legislation are simple and straightforward, and I’m confident that once these changes are implemented the bill will move through the legislative process.
As I stressed at the open forum, state legislation alone will not address the broader issues for undocumented students and for undocumented residents. Comprehensive immigration reform requires federal action. I wrote to New Jersey’s congressional delegation earlier this year to highlight the importance of bipartisan efforts to address effective immigration reform, in particular a legislative proposal commonly known as the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act, which, among other things, remedies a section from the 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act that has been interpreted to prohibit undocumented immigrants from receiving in-state tuition at public universities based solely on a person’s residency.
To further underscore the importance of national immigration reform and how it affects higher education, I traveled to Capitol Hill in mid-March for meetings with New Jersey’s congressional delegation. I was encouraged not only by our representatives’ willingness to hear our ideas, but also by the bipartisan consensus that Congress is likely to achieve comprehensive immigration reform in the near future. Indeed, the House and Senate are likely to announce bipartisan versions of immigration bills in the coming weeks.
I am gratified to see that policymakers in Trenton and Washington are finally converging on this important issue. I will continue to help them understand the impact of their decisions on higher education and to lend my support, counsel and assistance as they develop comprehensive reforms that allow the residents of our state and our nation the opportunity — through equal access to education — to pursue productive and meaningful futures.
Robert L. Barchi is the president of the University.