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Outrageous aversion

Want to go to Indonesia on a Dean’s Research Fellowship? Not anymore. How about using Duke support to go to Burundi or Somalia? Sorry. A recent change prohibits the use of Duke funds for travel to countries with a State Department Travel Advisory. Duke undergraduate research will now have to meet the government’s benchmark for safety.

Two basic arguments underlie this policy shift. The first is uniformity: this change makes the research travel policy consistent with existing rules for Duke’s study abroad programs. The second argument is an “emerging awareness” about global security challenges facing American travelers. The belief is that students would face great danger in these countries and Duke would face immense liability issues. Besides, how could the University knowingly put its students at risk?

In the past, however, Duke students have traveled to these same “dangerous” countries and have been personally transformed as a result. Just ask Duke graduate and Hart Fellow Pooja Kumar, who traveled to East Timor with Save the Children shortly after the 1999 separatist violence, a trip she called “the most intensive learning experience I have had to date.” Or Eric Greitens, who traveled to Rwanda with a U.N. support team shortly after the 1994 genocide and wrote that the post-conflict sights prompted “some very, very serious reflection about ultimate purpose and what things are all about and how I have to reconcile what I know about the world with what I hope to do in the future.” From Israel to Haiti to Kenya, students have broadened their ethical and academic horizons by traveling to these troubled regions.

This policy is also an about-face for an administration trying to cultivate a culture of global awareness and activism among its undergraduates. From the growth of the Humanitarian Challenges FOCUS program to the ever-encompassing global health initiative, Duke is striving to institutionalize scholar-activism. How can the administration possibly justify banning travel to Haiti mere months after bringing in Dr. Paul Farmer and requiring that all freshmen read Mountains Beyond Mountains? How can the administration rationalize barring undergraduates from those very countries where professors like Kate Whetten, Sheryl Broverman and Kirk Felsman have been hard at work? How can we validate such a decision after luring Nobel Prize-winning scientist/human rights activist Dr. Peter Agre and DUHS Chancellor and health inequalities czar Dr. Victor Dzau? Why inspire students to such great heights and then forbid them from their dreams?

Beyond simply being flawed in spirit, the policy is logically unconvincing. For instance, a Duke student could no longer use Duke funds to travel with a professor, as students have done in the past. Furthermore, Duke could not legitimately fund travel for undergraduates who are native citizens of these countries. This policy also ignores enormous regional differences within countries: northern Sudan is not war-torn southern Sudan and Eastern Pakistan is not the lawless Western Pakistan. The list itself is a political instrument: for example, the State Department avoids banning travel to our economic trading partners regardless of risk.

In his conversation with the undergraduate student body, President Richard Brodhead praised one student who had taken a “great educational opportunity” by exploring cross-ethnic relations in Bosnia-Herzegovina—one of the “central dramas of our strife-torn world.” That project would be impossible under this revised policy! Duke should be encouraging students to explore countries beyond the usual, wealthy, western European nations to which we are accustomed. If we are asking students to challenge their traditional notions of culture and Americanism by studying abroad, we should not do so by limiting travel to those countries deemed acceptably “safe”—read: Western.

A much more nuanced travel policy is absolutely necessary. Independent research projects are assessed individually to begin with, so it shouldn't take much more to judge whether a student has acknowledged safety concerns and taken appropriate measures. These might include traveling with a professor or with an internationally recognized NGO. As it stands, this policy is restrictive and short-sighted. We are trading transformative experiences and cultural expansion for safety and uniformity. We are preventing students from owning their undergraduate educations and from applying their scholarship in the challenging, risky, edgy way that is quintessentially Duke.

Jimmy Soni is a Trinity sophomore.

 

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