THE BLOG
10/06/2010 12:55 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Scholarship Slavery: Does St. John's 'Dean of Mean' Represent a New Face of Human Trafficking?

I have the greatest job in the world. As a university professor, I make good money, have a flexible work schedule, and receive outstanding benefits. Among the perks I get at New York University, I have a team of students that help me with important tasks: babysitting, cooking, cleaning, laundry, and landscaping.

Next year, when my contract comes up for renegotiation, I am optimistic that NYU will provide me with an additional three students -- one to serve as my chauffeur, one to be my personal shopper, and one to be my stylist.

I'm of course pulling your leg. None of the above is true.

Can you imagine a university that provided its staff with students for domestic work? Fortunately, those kinds of abuses don't occur here in America. Or do they?

Last week, we learned that one dean allegedly used scholarships to bring foreign students to the U.S. -- and to serve as her personal staff. Cecilia Chang, the former director of the Institute of Asian Studies and a former vice president at St. John's University was arrested on forced labor charges.

Picture being one of those students. You're awarded a scholarship to study at a major American school only to arrive and be told that you have to work as a maid 20 hours a week. And don't even think about complaining because not only will you lose your scholarship, but you might even lose your visa.

It's stressful enough to come to a foreign country and assimilate. But imagine the duress of having to be at someone's beck and call, and the fear of sanction should you disappoint or complain.

When someone's labor is exploited through force, fraud, or coercion, they become victims of human trafficking. The St. John's students seem to be the latest casualties of this modern-day form of slavery.

According to authorities, Chang forced students to cook and clean for her and her son, at times berating them if chores were not to satisfaction. Other menial tasks reportedly included driving her son to the airport at 3 a.m. and delivering money to Chang while she was out-of-state gambling at a casino. Some students were supposedly even required to falsify documents to mask her activities.

The International Labor Organization estimates that human traffickers subjugate 12.3 million people worldwide. The St. John's students are just a few out of thousands who are exploited in the U.S. every year -- often right under noses. And as the Chang racket reminds us, foreign students are generally unsuspecting subjects who are particularly vulnerable to exploitation.

It's great that prosecutors are going after the perpetrators of peonage. But for every trafficker busted, dozens, if not hundreds, go untouched.

The subjects of involuntary servitude, debt bondage, and sex trafficking have a variety of protections afforded to them by law -- including temporary housing, educational assistance, and health care benefits. Moreover, foreigners are eligible for a T-visa allowing them to stay in the U.S. as temporary residents, with the possibility of permanent residence after three years in some cases.

Unfortunately, most victims -- like the St. John's students -- remain unaware of these safeguards.

The despicable practice of human trafficking is certain to continue unless we do a better job of raising awareness and informing victims -- especially foreigners who might be too scared to speak up otherwise -- of the protections available to them.

The St. John's scandal offers a vital opportunity to bring greater attention to this scourge. Let's draw on the labors of these unfortunate students to perform a chore which is so desperately needed: Taking out the trash.