Kurt Chirbas co-reported this article.
The University has approved the first exception to an 11-year-old policy prohibiting undergraduate student trips to countries on the U.S. State Department’s Travel Warning List. The Bing Overseas Studies Program (BOSP) will send a group of 15 students next summer to spend three weeks in Israel, one of 33 nations on the U.S. Travel Warning List, as part of the Overseas Seminar Program.
The trip, to be led by Steven Weitzman, professor of religion and Jewish culture, will explore the sacred spaces of Christianity, Islam and Judaism, traveling through Jerusalem, Haifa, Tel Aviv and the Galilee.
After six months of conversations across four University departments, Provost John Etchemendy Ph.D. ’82 made the final decision to approve the seminar, exempting it from an international travel policy that has been in place since September 2001.
“They gave us permission only after we reviewed the State Department guidelines, followed them to a T and itemized to the provost exactly what we would do to respond to any and all security and safety concerns for the sake of our faculty and our students involved,” said BOSP Director Ramón Saldívar.
Planning the seminar
As a faculty member at Indiana University, Weitzman taught a three-week summer overseas program in Israel. When he moved to Stanford in 2009, he had hoped to continue leading these student trips, only to discover that the University had a policy explicitly prohibiting undergraduate trips to countries with State Department travel warnings.
“There was a lot of experience and a track record in terms of running programs in Israel [across U.S. universities],” Weitzman said. “So I thought there was a reasonable argument to make to the University about balancing the concern of student safety and the educational value of letting students learn about the Middle East firsthand.”
He decided last February to submit a proposal to lead a BOSP Overseas Seminar trip. Stanford brought back this seminar program — which allows a group of 12 to 15 undergraduates to travel overseas and participate in a course led by a Stanford faculty member — last academic year after it was cut in 2010 during a round of University-wide budget reductions.
Weitzman’s proposal was one of 18 the University received for the summer of 2013, according to Robert Sinclair, former director of BOSP.
Sinclair said BOSP was excited by the proposal, particularly since it had considered offering a trip to Israel in the summer of 2012, only to have the professor who had planned on leading the 2012 trip become unavailable.
“[Weitzman’s proposal] was enthusiastically received by the BOSP Exec Committee, which makes the decision about which seminars to choose,” Sinclair said.
BOSP immediately sent its recommendation to the Office of the Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education (VPUE) to begin the process of seeking approval, Sinclair said.
Before submitting the proposal to Etchemendy, the BOSP and VPUE offices held discussions with the Office of Risk Management to discuss security concerns in the region and to better understand the parts of travel warning that the proposal would have to respond to.
“It’s not a simple process. You have to do all the research, line up all the procedures that you’re going to follow, actually find out that you can do [those procedures],” Saldívar said.
Travel policy and exceptions process
Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education Harry Elam wrote in an email to The Daily that the provost’s travel policy applies to the entire University, and that only the provost can make exceptions to the guidelines. Elam said the policy especially applies to BOSP and Undergraduate Advising and Research (UAR) due to the fact that they primarily work with undergraduate students. The Provost issues exceptions on a case-by-case basis.
Associate Dean of Undergraduate Research Opportunities Brian Thomas wrote in an email to The Daily that UAR will continue to adhere to the Provost’s policy despite the exception for the Israel seminar. He commented that the UAR has security standards that proposals in all countries must meet.
“UAR policy is actually somewhat more strict [than BOSP], since our reviewers will also turn down proposals that do not adequately address safety concerns, whether the destination has a travel warning or not,” Thomas said.
State Department Warnings
The State Department has issued various levels of warnings about travel in Israel, from “urging” U.S. citizens to educate themselves about security factors while traveling in Israel and the West Bank to “strongly urging” citizens to avoid the Gaza Strip.
Administrators said the seminar will not travel to areas of Israel and the Palestinian territories that are under specific advisory warnings from the federal government.
“In addition to avoiding travel to the Gaza Strip, the seminar will not visit sites located in southern Israel, the West Bank and specific areas in Jerusalem considered to be unsafe by the Israeli Ministry of Tourism,” said Tina Dobleman, assistant vice president for risk management.
General travel warnings, including the one on Israel, apply to whole nations. According to the State Department, “travel warnings are issued when long-term, protracted conditions that make a country dangerous or unstable lead the State Department to recommend that Americans avoid or consider the risk of travel to that country.”
The University has protocols for these protracted conditions as well, according to Saldívar.
“The State Department Travel Warnings are pretty eminent. They’re paramount in our consideration,” Saldívar said. “We can’t do [a trip] if we don’t have the proper protocols in place for making sure that we pay attention to the minutest detail outlined in the State Department Travel Bulletins.”
These protocols include preparing for the possibility of students being injured in terrorist attacks and being injured in protests that become violent, according to Dobleman.
“[Global services provider] International SOS maintains a 24/7 alarm call-in center to provide immediate access to medical consultation, local medical referrals [and] medical case management in the event of injury or hospitalization, as well as evacuation arrangements if medically necessary,” Dobleman said.
Saldívar said that a private agency will provide in-country security for the members of the seminar. He added that BOSP has the discretion to cancel the trip in the event of regional instability.
“The agreement to do this [trip] is provisional to the ongoing safety of everyone concerned,” Saldívar said. “It’s hard to predict what will be the international politics will be a year from now.”
Potential discrimination against students of certain nationalities and the implications of this provisional policy exception for student travel to Israel remain unclear.
The State Department has specific entry and exit warnings for activists and “U.S. citizens whom Israeli authorities suspect of being of Arab, Middle Eastern or Muslim origin.” These groups “may face additional, often time-consuming and probing questioning by immigration and border authorities, or may even be denied entry into Israel, the West Bank, or Gaza.”
Saldívar expressed a University commitment to providing equal access to Stanford-organized programming.
“Our policy at Stanford always is that programs that we approve and that we make available to our students are available equally to all of our students,” Saldívar said.
Elam and Dobleman wrote that Stanford worked to facilitate the visa process for students who may face difficulty entering Israel based on their nationalities and concluded that the decision to admit or deny anyone to the country is up to Israeli immigration policy.
“We will work with accepted non-U.S. citizens to facilitate visas but as with any travel outside the United States, there is the possibility that particular nationalities may not be able to obtain a visa,” Dobleman said. “This is determined solely by the host country and we will have to comply with Israeli immigration policy in this regard.”
UAR deferred comment on how this exception might apply to future students interested in traveling to Israel outside of BOSP programming to the Office of the Vice Provost. Elam said that the provost evaluates each request separately.
BOSP, the Office of the Provost, Risk Management and VPUE co-submitted a statement that reads: “The benefit of this profound learning experience reflects Stanford’s commitment to understanding and engaging in global issues.”
All four University departments said that the seminar will meet a strong student demand for programming in the Middle East.
An information session on the seminar, “Between Heaven and Earth: Exploring Sacred Space in Judaism, Christianity and Islam,” will be held in Sweet Hall on Monday, Oct. 15.