The article you are about to read is a journey into a very sensitive subject amongst almost anyone who is part of a higher education administration team. Before I foray into the negative, let me say this: American universities could simply not remain above water without the contribution of both foreign professors and students.

The STEM Challenge for Universities

Faculty, especially those with a PhD in a STEM-related field are extremely hard to come by in this country, due to several factors. First, the cost of a PhD can be exorbitant, so the educational career of many of the best and brightest our nation has to offer stops at the Bachelors or Masters level. Second, researching and producing something novel can take months to create and then perfect. Even with the help of graduate assistants, the rate of pay can seem minuscule when compared to working at a STEM research facility.  (Remember the days in which a professor liked the uniqueness of wearing shorts to work, taking long amounts of time off in the summer, and working from home? The tech industry has made that not quite so novel now.) Since this is most always (with a few exceptions) a requirement to achieve professor status at a research university, many undergrad students do not see the return on investment. Finally, and the most important reason, is the sheer amount of money a STEM Bachelors or Masters graduate can make in the private or semi-private facility almost immediately out of the gate. If a person already has their doctorate, then universities are forced into a bidding war with Silicon Valley and the rest of the tech industry, almost certainly losing it early in the process. I know of one Cybersecurity program in which a PhD was offered $200k to be an Assistant Professor. This offer was roughly $200k less that he was currently making at his position (and it was not even on either coast), so he politely declined.

The Espionage Risk

For the aforementioned reasons, the choices become for American universities to lower standards of teaching qualifications (which is almost impossible to do in the wake of accreditation requirements, endowment, and political backlash) or hire PhD’s from other countries. Like international students I have encountered, the vast majority are here with the best of intentions, knowing this country can give those opportunities and exposure that their native land simply cannot. However, the few who are here for nefarious purposes, namely industrial or nation state espionage, are tarnishing the reputation of the outstanding scholars who excel in their positions. What makes the transgressions ever more outrageous, with respect to  public institutions, American tax dollars are funding this spying!

Often, the faculty accused of spying is caught when investigation during a research grant proposal reveals they did not adequately or accurately reveal their involvement with foreign entities, as required by federal grant laws. A few years ago, an associate professor of chemistry at University of Kansas was indicted in August on federal charges of multiple counts of fraud for allegedly holding a full-time position at a Chinese university while working on federally funded research at KU. He was convicted by a jury of several charges this past summer, but two weeks ago, a federal judge threw all but one of those charges out, but that’s another article for another time. To gain entry into the United States to be educated or teach requires one to be categorized depending on their expertise and intentions. A good reference point is this online guide: University Business Guidelines. Also each university who admits or hires international students or professors must have a compliance guide detailing internal policies.

STEM Fields More Vulnerable – Talent Needed

The problems of both industrial and nation state spying are not limited to academia. In fact, students who are educated here by universities who depend on them often find themselves working in the STEM industry if properly sponsored and the vetting process must start over again. Most, like university students and faculty, have the best of intentions and only wish to prosper and serve their profession, but unfortunately some do not.

Until more STEM graduates at American universities want to continue to a PhD level degree, there will be a small hiring pool filled with daunting challenges. Even for those who are PhD awarded Americans, convincing them to teach at the university levels are resolved, the threat of espionage, by sheer odds, will be a necessary risk.


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Joe Jabara, JD, is the Director, of the Hub, For Cyber Education and Awareness, Wichita State University. He also serves as an adjunct faculty at two other universities teaching Intelligence and Cyber Law. Prior to his current job, he served 30 years in the Air Force, Air Force Reserve, and Kansas Air National Guard. His last ten years were spent in command/leadership positions, the bulk of which were at the 184th Intelligence Wing as Vice Commander.