Some students were dismayed to learn a special lecture on Islamic history would be canceled Tuesday night because the presenter was denied access into the United States.
Richard Wittmann, who is a German citizen, is the associate director of the Orient-Institut in Istanbul.
Wittmann was making his journey from Turkey to Ole Miss when he was delayed in Frankfurt, Germany and told he did not have adequate documentation to enter the United States.
Wittmann said as he was boarding the plane in Germany for Houston, where he would connect and fly into Memphis, Tennessee, he was stopped by airport officials.
“I have lived and studied in San Francisco, New York, and Boston for years and not once did I have any difficulty entering the country,” Wittmann wrote in email earlier this week.
He was traveling to present his paper “Autobiography Beyond the Enlightened Individual: Facets and Forms of Life Writing in the Islamic World” as a part of a medieval Islam and the modern world lecture series on campus. He was the third of four speakers in the series. Wittmann was also scheduled to speak at the University of Texas at Austin during his stay.
“I was quite shocked that in spite of holding an official U.S. government document in hand stating the opposite and declaring that I am free to travel to the U.S. any time until April of next year, my permission apparently had been revoked,” Wittmann said.
The Electronic System for Travel Authorization, operated by the Department of Homeland Security online application system, was developed by the United States government as a way to pre-screen travelers before they were allowed to enter the country.
According to the website, visitors traveling through the Visa Waiver Program, including German citizens, must apply for a travel authorization in advance. They must also have a machine readable passport in order to gain admittance into the United States.
“I was told by the Homeland Security staff in Frankfurt that the travel authorization approval issued by the same government agency, which I got through the ESTA visa waiver system on Jan. 20, was ‘declared expired by Washington,’” Wittmann said.
Wittmann said he was not able to learn the reason or when the decision was made to deny him entry on the airplane.
“Oddly enough, they also would not grant me a new travel authorization on the spot, which is usually the case if an address was misspelled or if there was another small error in the original application,” Wittmann said.
This summer marks 30 years since Wittmann first visited America, and he has continued to do so every year or two since.
Ole Miss professor Valerio Cappozzo, who is the director of the Italian program and a medieval studies affiliate, said he was disappointed when he found out Wittmann’s lecture would have to be canceled.
Cappozzo said it can be a frustrating experience, but in the current global climate it is a conversation that needs to be had since President Donald Trump’s travel ban.
Wittmann earned his Master of Arts and his doctorate from Harvard University. He also specializes in Islamic law and legal practice during the Ottoman Empire, the use of Islamic law institutions by non-Muslims and questions of identity in the empire.
Ole Miss professor Nicolas Trepanier, a native of Canada, said it is possible it was due to a clerical error.
“We don’t know exactly what happened yet,” Trepanier said. “We’re still investigating it.”
The lecture has not been rescheduled, but Trepanier said Ole Miss is likely going to try and arrange for Wittmann to speak in the next couple of years.
“When we organize something like that … When all of that is canceled, it makes our job very, very difficult,” Trepanier said.
Trepanier said immigrating into countries is not always easy, but he does worry continual poor experiences have the potential to hurt America’s academic edge.
Trepanier said for academics, America is the major leagues. There are multiple non-native U.S. citizens teaching at Ole Miss who have graduated from the most prestigious American colleges, like Trepanier’s alma mater, Harvard University.
“There are people who want to be in the U.S., including me, who want to be here because the universities here are better than anywhere else,” Trepanier said. “That is a strength of the United States.”