By Joel Seguine
Office of the Vice President for Communications
A number of changes are under way within the International Center (IC) designed to streamline immigration processes for international faculty and staff, and more are planned. The actions respond to task force recommendations issued during the summer.
The University’s Task Force on Faculty and Staff Immigration Services, chaired by Liz Barry, managing director of the Life Sciences Institute, undertook a comprehensive review of immigration services pertaining to hiring and retaining foreign nationals as faculty and staff. The task force report issued in June includes 12 recommendations comprising policies, practices and infrastructure designed to upgrade the IC’s immigration services in the post-9/11 environment.
The task force provided a great service to the IC and the University, says E. Royster Harper, vice president for student affairs, who oversees the center and who initiated the task force.
“Our ability to hire and retain the best foreign talent is under pressure from recent trends and we must put ourselves in the best position to compete for and welcome these individuals into our midst,” Harper says. “Making the navigation of immigration procedures more transparent and efficient will make us more competitive in attracting outstanding international faculty and researchers, as well as students.”
As the task force formed its recommendations, certain core values and guiding principles emerged, Barry says.
“One of the keys was the idea that the institution’s core value of promoting international education and collaboration is best served by the University adopting uniform policies and procedures for hiring foreign nationals, ensuring strict compliance with them and providing the resources necessary for efficient implementation,” she says.
The first policy change will be implemented Oct. 3 when legal counsel retained by the University will be available to provide a subset of services on behalf of the University with regard to certain employment-based immigration petitions, Assistant General Counsel Donica Varner says. As of that date, all new immigration petitions for which U-M is the petitioner must be prepared by either Faculty and Staff Immigration Services (FSIS) staff or one of the five firms retained by the Office of the Vice President and General Counsel (OGC) to provide immigration services.
“Previously, individuals or their campus units often hired counsel themselves. Since these attorneys were actually performing legal work on behalf of the University, the task force believed the Office of the Vice President and General Counsel should be responsible for selection, retention and supervision of outside counsel,” Varner says.
When legal counsel is deemed necessary, the new policy makes the hiring unit responsible for payment of legal fees, administrative costs, filing fees and recruitment costs. Foreign national faculty and staff members no longer will be permitted to retain legal counsel to represent the University in immigration matters. Similarly, hiring units may only work with a law firm that has been approved by and retained by the OGC.
Varner says the firms were selected based on their familiarity with higher education institutions; successful experience with the University; foreign language skills of staff; and ability to handle significant workload in a timely fashion; among other criteria. The names of the firms and details about the policy are available at http://www.ogc.umich.edu.
Another change already benefiting international faculty, staff and students is the administrative move in July by the IC—with the help of Michigan Administrative Information Services—of the International Student/Scholar Health Insurance Plan from a standalone database to M-Pathways, according to Louise Baldwin, assistant director of IC. “This move was the first step of a three-part project that, when completed, will greatly reduce the number of paper insurance forms international students and scholars are required to submit, and will reduce the need for in-person visits to the IC that are related to health insurance,” Baldwin says.
Another recommendation involving the upgrade of digital infrastructure and streamlining of business processes resulted in an ongoing pilot project with several academic units. The project will test software called INSZoom, which allows FSIS to provide many of its services more efficiently, especially the processing of H-1B (temporary employment) petitions, according to Meghan Covino, FSIS manager.
“The software allows departments and employees to log-in any time to check the status of their petitions. Departments also can run reports tracking information such as the number of employees they have in H-1B status which countries they are from,” Covino says. Following the pilot, campus-wide use of the software and new processes is scheduled for Winter Term.
The task force recommendations have been incorporated into a formal project to update and improve the services of IC for all clients, including international students and departmental staff who rely so much on the services of the center, Harper says. “We also conducted a thorough internal process review and are benefiting from an additional study done by an external consultant,” she adds.
Dean of Students Susan Eklund, who oversees the project, says staff from academic and administrative units will participate in focus groups to ensure that new and updated policies and processes meet their needs. “We’ll be rolling out improvements on a gradual basis over the next 12 to 18 months. The first recommendation we implemented was bringing the technical infrastructure of the International Center to a more current state for Director Rodolfo Altamirano and his staff,” Eklund says.
Altamirano says that with all of the changes, his staff will put a strong emphasis on educational outreach. “We want to keep those who use and need our services well informed about the changes and improvements we’re making,” he says.
The task force report and detailed information about the IC and its services is available at http://www.umich.edu/~icenter/.