Op-Ed: Unapologetically demanding a travel review process that is clear, sensible, fair

The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy prides itself on breaking conventional assumptions and prejudices by exposing its students to diverse perspectives and experiences. When we learned that Fletcher offered only two spring break treks to foreign countries during our first year, we took it upon ourselves to initiate the first-ever Fletcher Pakistan Trek.

Since October 2016, a group of us worked hard to bring this idea to fruition. Our trek drew nearly 60 applicants, illustrating a strong desire by the Fletcher community to experience Pakistan through first-hand immersion. The arduous tasks of ensuring security, fundraising and organizing logistics did not deter us from our mission: to expose future leaders to a complex country and give them the opportunity to form their own opinions about it.

We strove to abide by all the available rules and guidelines, especially obtaining university travel approval. We were met with immense disappointment when, on Nov. 15 — just five weeks before our scheduled departure to Pakistan — we received a “Not Approved” decision. The status came as a total shock because four of the reasons cited were not previously mentioned in the “Provisional Approval” we had received just a week prior.

Through this op-ed, we would like to highlight how our experience of working with the Tufts International Travel Review Committee (ITRC) — the entity responsible for ensuring “students are adequately prepared” to travel to countries on the U.S. State Department Warning List — reveals an administrative process governed by ambiguous rules, perfunctory box-ticking and high subjectivity.

Process Needs Clarity

Firstly, there is a lack of clarity on the rules and expectations to obtain travel approval. We completed separate applications to ITRC and ISOS, the premier security and medical evacuation firm with which Tufts has a contract. It’s odd that two organizations one would expect to be joined at the hip actually do not communicate with one another. Yet, despite the behind-the-scenes bureaucratic intricacies, we responded to every ITRC concern by modifying our itinerary and ensuring we fulfilled both standards.

The use of politics in the committee’s decision-making was also surprising and unexpected. One of the most outrageous reasons we received for the disapproval was decidedly political in nature: “Administration’s new South Asia strategy of friendliness towards India and harsher dealings with Pakistan.” We find it difficult to accept that the current administration’s policies — in which we had no say — were used against us to diminish our efforts to launch this initiative.

Whether this was the main reason or not, it was an articulated reason nonetheless. The wording could even be interpreted as a bias against Pakistan and Pakistani students. This is a disturbing implication and has the potential to set a dangerous precedent against other Tufts students wishing to pursue treks in countries discussed in classrooms but rarely understood from alternate perspectives.

Recommendations Should be Sensible

Secondly, beyond the unclear expectations, we are also concerned with the arbitrary nature of the approval process. In a meeting to discuss the Not Approved decision after Thanksgiving break — three weeks before the trek — the committee expressed that ground transportation was their biggest concern. We had changed our original plan of using a public bus to a private van arranged with the help of Fletcher alums at the Pakistani Embassy in Washington D.C. but this proposal was not enough to mitigate risk concerns per ITRC standards.

What ITRC suggested instead was jarring: traveling in armored vehicles throughout our time in Islamabad and Lahore. The only company that could fulfill this request would not only charge us $82,000 but also did not have the “capacity to provide” enough vehicles for our group. However, after the suggesting this, ITRC concluded that “a caravan of armored vehicles would most certainly not reflect the recommendation to maintain a low profile.”

Doomed if we used armored vehicles, and doomed if we did not. This recommendation was ultimately impossible to fulfill — and, quite frankly, ridiculous. Proposing this lose-lose scenario makes us question whether the review process actually exists to serve student interests by providing further resources or sensible recommendations, or to just check off boxes.

Standards Should be Fair

Lastly, while we fully respect the process’ goal of ensuring security, we are concerned by the lack of transparency in standards, decision-making criteria and parties involved with the committee. And while we acknowledge that every country faces unique challenges, the lack of base standards and fairness in risk assessment is concerning. If a regional services officer at the State Department is consulted for one trek, the same standard should apply to all treks undergoing this process. If the review process is accelerated to meet one trek’s timeline, the same courtesy should be extended to all treks.

When we asked about best practices of other previously approved treks, we were informed that those decisions are confidential and made on a case-by-case basis. Adding insult to injury, we were told in an email to “move forward, rather than looking back on previous decisions.” The lack of transparency leads us to suspect that standards are not fairly applied across all treks going to places with comparable risks. If the opposite is true, we see no reason for secrecy.

Questioning Authority to Better Our Community

ITRC’s decision was not only met with disappointment by trek leaders, participants, local contacts and the Tufts and Fletcher Pakistani alumni, but also caused our generous funders to withdraw their support. Our experience demonstrates that the trek approval process is like a house of cards, built on a weak foundation and functioning under highly dubious rules and assumptions. In order to recognize it as a legitimate entity that truly works with students to ensure their safety and security, there needs to be an overhaul of the entire process. Simply updating language on the website and on the one-pager provided to Fletcher trek organizers bypass the more critical issues: unfair standards, underlying biases and politicization of the decision-making process.

We call upon the ITRC to be transparent with its process and honest about its judging criteria, and to steer clear of using politics and proposing self-contradictory recommendations. We urge the Fletcher administration to show greater support of their students who are faced with insurmountable demands. Most importantly, we encourage our peers to join us in questioning the injustice of this process and participating in the ongoing dialogue to improve our community.

In the end, the Fletcher Pakistan Trek is an initiative led for students, by students. It is a tremendous loss for The Fletcher School and serves as a cautionary tale to all Tufts students who aspire to lead a group trek to countries that are often studied and discussed at length from Western-centric lenses in university classrooms. Despite mainstream narratives of Pakistan, our peers were eager and excited to learn about the country first hand. That our trek was killed by an opaque bureaucratic process, institutional biases and political reasoning is highly regrettable.