New Rules for the Road

Published February 4, 2008


For years, many Duke students wanting to do foreign study faced a dilemma: Different university units had different rules for where students could go.  Where one program said Colombia was unsafe, another would encourage student travel.

There’s confusion no more. A new university international travel policy establishes a single set of rules for all units and opens new opportunities for travel to some countries that previously had been officially off-limits.

“We’re trying to reduce uncertainty and balance individual safety with greater freedom to travel,” said Gil Merkx, vice provost for international affairs. “We need a straight-forward, one-stop policy that covers the entire university. Not that many universities have gone so far to develop a policy like this.”

For years, several programs, including Study Abroad and the Hart Leadership Program, restricted undergraduate student travel to countries on the U.S. State Department’s travel advisory list.  The rationale was that if the State Department warned American citizens about travel to the country, it was irresponsible of Duke to send undergraduate students there.

The rule made it more difficult for students to go to countries on the list, such as Israel, and impossible for faculty members doing research in those countries to establish Study Abroad programs.

However, other Duke programs ignored the State Department list and followed their faculty’s best advice. Merkx said the inconsistency was problematic.

“The provost asked me six months ago to convene a task force on travel policy because there was too much confusion,” he said.  “Study Abroad had one policy, but Latin American Studies would send students to the same places that Study Abroad wouldn’t.  Deans, administrators, faculty and students all got caught in the middle, and there weren’t easy answers.

“We also knew we had to solve this before DukeEngage got fully onboard.  With the large numbers of students we envisioned traveling under DukeEngage, this was going to get more complicated unless we had one policy in place governing everybody.”

The focal points of the policy are a new website for international travel and a faculty-administrator body called the International Travel Oversight Committee (ITOC), which will create a new Restricted Regions list and oversee implementation of the policy.  The committee has six subcommittees that advise on travel to different regions of the world.

Merkx said the committee will update the Restricted Regions list at least once a semester; more frequently in case of unexpected events such as political turmoil or a natural disaster.

“Unlike the State Department list, our Restricted Regions list is not based on countries but on location,” Merkx said.  “We might say you can go to Kenya, but not to the border areas with Somalia, or that you can go to Colombia, but only to Medellin and certain other cities.” (With the recent political unrest in Kenya, the entire country is currently on the restricted list.)

Some places on the State Department list are not included on the Duke Restricted Regions list, making Duke funds available for undergraduate travel to those locations.  For example, Israel is not on the Duke list; however some regions of the Palestinian National Authority are.



Eric Meyers, Bernice & Morton Lerner Professor of Religion who frequently travels to Israel for research, said he welcomes the new policy.

“Based on what I have heard that we will be reopening travel to Israel and reactivating our programs with Israel this is certainly great news,” Meyers said.  “Our Israel programs have fallen off the map and radar screens of Duke undergraduate students. I applaud the decision of the university to reopen its Israel programming, and Jewish Studies hopes to re-inaugurate its Summer Program in Israel in 2009.”

The policy establishes three sets of rules for faculty and staff; graduate students and undergraduate students.

  * For faculty and staff, travel is essentially unrestricted except that faculty or staff member “can not be required to travel to a location on the Restricted Regions list.”
  * Graduate students can go anywhere on the world, but if they visit a region on the advisory list, they must sign a waiver.
  * The policy is most restrictive for undergraduate students.  They can’t go to regions on the advisory list using Duke funds or for Duke credit unless they appeal and get ITOC approval for the trip.

“If a student wants to go to a place that is dangerous, they can appeal to the oversight committee,” Merkx said.  “The committee’s decision will be final, but there will be instances when a student will have a good reason to go to a place on the list.  For example, parts of Pakistan are on the list, but if you are a Pakistani student who goes there every year, who knows the area and knows how to get around safely, then it’s probably safe for you to go there.  The committee would probably look at that case differently than it would for someone from, say, North Carolina.”

All members of the Duke community will be encouraged to enter official visits on a travel registry included on the new Duke international travel website.  For undergraduate students, such registration will be mandatory if students use Duke funds or earn Duke credits for the trip, Merkx said.

The website also will include information about export controls (see related story), the Restricted Regions list, insurance information and other pertinent information.

For a university that has seen a significant increase in international travel over the past two decades, the new policy should facilitate even more travel, which Merkx noted is a priority of “Making a Difference,” Duke current strategic plan.

“Duke has paid out more than 2,000 reimbursements for overseas travel over the past two years,” Merkx said.  “That doesn’t include Study Abroad students.  Most of that are faculty members and a few staff.  By any accounting, that’s a lot of foreign travel.  And that number will only increase with DukeEngage, because we expect that at least half of the students doing service learning will go overseas.”

Written by Geoffrey Mock

[originally published on Duke Today website]