In the two months since the attacks of Sept. 11, federal investigators have contacted administrators on more than 200 college campuses to collect information about students from Middle Eastern countries, the most sweeping canvass of the halls of academia since the Cold War, the colleges say.
The agents have asked what subjects the students are studying, whether they are performing well and where they are living.
They have also questioned the students themselves, asking about their views on Osama bin Laden, the names of their favorite restaurants and their plans for after graduation.
The investigations have put the universities in a difficult position, pitting the government's interest in security against the institutions' desire to protect students' privacy and to avoid engaging in racial profiling.
But in the end, a national survey of college registrars found, nearly all the universities approached have readily supplied answers to the government's questions, largely because the law appears to be on the government's side.
The agents, from the FBI and the Immigration and Naturalization Service, have used those conversations as the basis for interviewing dozens of students. One Saudi Arabian student, who attends the University of Colorado at Denver, said federal investigators closed their interview with him by saying, "Expect to see us again."
The college officials who have been sought out _ including those at Columbia University, Tufts University and San Diego State University _ said that the often unannounced visits and the urgent lines of inquiry were throwbacks to a decade or more ago, when it was not uncommon for a federal agent to ask a dean a question like "Did Vladimir show up at the lab today?"
Larry Bell, director of international education at the University of Colorado in Denver, said that federal agents had visited his office or the registrar's office five times in recent weeks. Bell said that the agents had interviewed at least 50 students from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and other Arab countries. He said he did not think any had been arrested or linked to a terrorist cell.
"The students are not sure what the purpose of the questions are," Bell said. "But they know that the government isn't interviewing any students from Germany."
Mindful that a terrorist with a student visa participated in the Sept. 11 attacks, the federal agencies said they were seeking to mine further leads and to begin making good on the president's promise to ensure that the half-million foreign students studying here were accounted for on their campuses.
"One of the reasons they want to know where a student lives is so that they can come find them when necessary or simply watch them," said Catheryn Cotten, director of the international student office at Duke University, who has yet to receive such a visit but has been in contact with many colleges that have. "It's not that they want to arrest the students. They want to keep track of them coming and going."
Still, the sudden appearance of agents in college buildings and the government's plans to expand such surveillance have heightened the anxiety on campuses already jittery because of the terrorist attacks and the anthrax scares.
"It's just very hard to squeal on your own students," said James O. Freedman, a former president of Dartmouth College. "You don't want students to get the perception that you are in league with those who may be out to get them."
In a survey by the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers, 220 colleges reported that they had been contacted at least once by the FBI or the INS after Sept. 11 about the status of foreign students. Nearly a quarter of those institutions reported multiple contacts.
Under federal immigration law, the government is entitled to much of the information it has sought. As a condition of most education visas, a foreign student signs a waiver permitting a college to let immigration officials know when the student arrived on campus, how many credits the student had earned and whether the student's field of study or mailing address had changed.