Sunday, October 5, 2014

Montana: Universities Very Proactive Re: State Department Warnings, Including MERS, Ebola

According to, when the US State Department posted a travel warning to Mozambique last month, it advised of possible civil unrest surrounding the country’s October elections.

Posted on September 18, the warning is one of nearly 40 global advisories and alerts listed by the Department of State. Ranging from México to the West Bank, the advisories warn travelers of armed extremists, conflict, crime and disease.

In Montana, such advisories now trigger a mandatory review process by schools within the Montana University System, one that requires students and employees to win committee approval when traveling to countries under advisory for school-related activities.

Montana’s two flagship universities were also required to build and launch a travel registry by October 1--something the University of Montana has done.

“We evaluate each situation on an individual basis,” said Marja Unkuri-Chaudhry, director of UM’s study abroad, student exchanges and institutional partnerships. “If we have faculty and staff in countries with a warning in place, they must obtain prior permission for travel by submitting a plan as part of their travel registration.”

Unkuri-Chaudhry said the issue comes up several times a year as UM’s faculty and students travel the globe to conduct their work, or as staffers to recruit new international students.
The state Board of Regents mandated the review back in March, requiring each campus within the state to adopt policies tracking their international travelers.

COMMENT: “We’ve been pleased with the travel registry,” said Unkuri-Chaudhry. “Health and safety risk management is an important part of international education. It’s something we have to stay on top of.”

If a UM employee or student plans to travel to a country with an active warning, the registry triggers an automatic review by a committee comprising the Office of International Travel, the Office of Environmental Health and Risk Management, and legal counsel.

The registry includes emergency contact information and asks the traveler to identify the specific health and safety risks present at the destination, including those listed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Department of State.

Travelers must also identify their plans to mitigate the risks. If students are involved, it requires the traveler to explain the academic relevance of the program.

“We constantly monitor world events and carefully assess whether that’s going to affect any of the travelers based on our process,” said Unkuri-Chaudhry. “If we see a health or security concern developing and have students or staff in that region, we’ll monitor that very carefully.”

UM maintains 90 international student exchanges and partners with 150 foreign universities in study abroad programs. The nations range from The University of Ghana to the American University of Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates.

“When I register for international travel, our registry will tell me what the warnings are,” said Julie Cahill, assistant director of international recruitment at UM. “I’ve never gone to any place I’ve been told not to go by the State Department.”

Cahill said UM staffers don’t travel to West Africa to recruit students, though it does conduct “armchair recruitment” through emails and other efforts. She’s planning a recruiting trip to Japan and China this year.

“We don’t physically go to West Africa to recruit students,” said Cahill when asked about the Ebola virus. “For us, it’s not a primary target for recruitment. But we will recruit anywhere in the world. We have faculty and students who go all over the globe.”

On August 28, the State Department posted a travel alert to West Africa after the outbreak of the Ebola virus. The alert cautioned against non-essential travel and prompted the Curry Health Center at UM to issue its own campus advisory. The center has also posted a health notification regarding the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS). 

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