Despite the heightened state of racial tensions in the United States, interest in the nation’s higher education system remains strong among international students, the president of the oldest private university in California said.

Speaking to The Japan Times on Wednesday ahead of an academic conference in Tokyo this week, Dr. Max Nikias, president of the University of Southern California, said the institution’s international student applicant pool grew by 5 percent this year.

“I would say a little bit of a tension has been there for the last three or four years. However, it’s been intensified (in the) last year or so as a result of the latest presidential election,” Nikias said, referring to the race that put Donald Trump in the White House.

There has been a surge in concern about racial tension in the U.S., especially in August when a white-supremacist rally in Charlottesville, North Carolina, turned violent, resulting in many injuries and three deaths. President Trump has been criticized after he blamed “both sides” for the violence.

Nikias, however, said that despite the tension, top American universities remain attractive to international students.

“There are hundreds of thousands of international students who value the education of top American universities, and it doesn’t matter who the president is — and I believe USC belongs in that category,” he said.

According to the Institute of International Education, USC ranked second in the acceptance of international student applicants in 2015-16.

Nikias said this was nothing new; the university was ranked No. 3 in the 1930s, when it had more than 700 foreign students which accounted for roughly 10 percent of the student body. The university has grown substantially since then, and now counts 44,000 students, of which 13,340 are international students coming from 128 nations.

The university graduated its first Japanese student in 1889, nine years after the institution opened its doors. Its first Japanese student union was formed in 1910.

USC also counts two Japanese prime ministers as alumni — former Prime Minister Takeo Miki, who studied at the university in the 1930s, and current Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who attended in 1978. Abe paid a visit to the university during a trip to the U.S. in 2015.

“He’s a Trojan, he loves the university,” Nikias said, referring to USC’s sports teams.

Nikias is in Tokyo leading a 100-strong delegation of faculty and staff for a three-day conference hosted by USC that kicked off Thursday night.

The biannual Global Conference features keynotes by Sony Corp. Chief Executive Officer Kazuo Hirai and retired General David Petraeus, who will speak about Japan-U.S. joint security concerns in light of North Korea’s escalating missile and nuclear programs.

Nikias said the conference will cover a range of topics including technology and geopolitical issues, and expects around 450 guests including alumni and friends of the university based in Japan as well as those coming from numerous Asian countries.

“We’ve always been very welcoming for international students. It’s been a priority,” he said.

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