Richard Reeves

Reality Check

NEW YORK -- The Stevens Indicator, the alumni magazine of the school from which I received an ME (Mechanical Engineer) degree more than 30 years ago, includes a list of new faculty each year. The current issue profiles the 15 appointed in 2000-2001.

Here are the names by department: Electrical and Computer Engineering: Edward Blicharz, Rajarathnam Chandramouli, Hong Man, K.P. Subbalakshmi, Uf Tureli; Chemistry and Chemical Engineering: Svetlana Sukhishvili, Olga Maltseva, Nicolai Panikov; Mathematical Sciences: Darinka Dentcheva, Mohammad Abanjeh; Systems Engineering and Management: John Farr, John Keating, Robert Seymour, Bernard Skown, Robert Stinerock.

That is part of today's reality in American hard-sciences scholarship and achievement. The teachers in that group all did their graduate work at American universities, where by some estimates more than half of the doctorates in the hard sciences now are earned by foreigners. Their undergraduate degrees are from, among other places, the University of Madras, Humboldt University in Berlin, the University of Suzhou, Ural State at Sverdlosk, Moscow State University, Indian Institute of Sciences, Bangalore and Yarmouk University in Irbid, Jordan.

It is not, strictly speaking, a new reality. Albert Einstein, after all, did not do his undergraduate work at Princeton. He was, like many of the Nobel Prize winners who helped make the University of California the greatest of public schools, a refugee from the Europe Hitler conquered. Like some of the new professors at Stevens, his English may not have been perfect, but he spoke an international language called mathematics.

Already, two Indian-Americans -- Hargobind Khorana of Harvard and Subramanian Chandrasekhar of the University of Chicago -- are Nobel laureates.

Indian-Americans, in fact, are among the most educated citizens and residents in our country. Over the past 25 years, Indian-American children have been three times as likely to graduate from college as white American children. Perhaps most important in terms of what the future will look like in the United States, the percentage of Indian-Americans who are between the ages of 18 and 24 is five times more than the percentage of white Americans who are between those ages.

The traffic in highly educated young men and women from Asia to the United States is a complicated business. Estimates of the numbers of graduates from American schools of science and technology who stay in the United States rather than returning home range from 50 percent to 80 percent; one of the things that complicate statistics is love and marriage. Many foreign students end up with American husbands or wives.

Many Indians, though, decide to go home after working here for a few years. There are more opportunities at home now because of the global economy and evolving communications technology, which allow them to do the same kind of work and teaching they can do in the United States or Europe. Many go back because "family values" mean so much less here than in Asian societies. Some, particularly Chinese, go back for patriotic reasons: They want to share in the building of their own countries.

You can say that these "aliens" are taking jobs from our kids and other Americans, but how many of our kids are accomplished in stochastic optimization, as is Dr. Dentcheva, or three-dimensional sub-band video-coding algorithm, as is Dr. Man? Or, you could say that we are stealing the best and the brightest from the rest of the world, particularly Russia and the poorer parts of Asia.

Either way, I think, American wins. This is a meritocracy. Most of these people are doing jobs that very few Americans can do, just as many other immigrants (many of them illegal) from Mexico and Central America are doing jobs Americans don't want to do -- like scrubbing dishes in restaurants plain and fancy.

The advances made by educated new immigrants have caused pessimists here to conclude that the "American Dream" is dead. The opposite is true. The American Dream belongs to the whole world now.

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