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Law doesn’t force UMass to ban admission of Iranian nationals to energy-related programs

UMass doesn’t have to refuse admission of Iranian nationals to energy-related majors, and administrators should oppose the law they used to justify the policy.

(Originally published on DailyCollegian.com)

In a repudiation of stated policy ensuring equal opportunity and non-discrimination, the University of Massachusetts began refusing admission of Iranian nationals to energy-related programs in the College of Engineering and the College of Natural Sciences on Feb. 1.

A University press release stated that a 2012 law refuses Iranian citizens visas if they intend to study in nuclear or energy-related fields, and that administrators “recognize” the “difficulties” the policy creates for students from Iran as “unfortunate” and in “conflict with institutional values and principles.”

But several reports suggest that federal law did not force administrators to institute the new admissions policy, and that the reasoning behind the decision was not solely based on ensuring legal compliance.

Jamal Abdi, policy director for the National Iranian American Council (NIAC), told MassLive.com the Department of Homeland Security was enforcing the policy and that only one other American university has a similar policy interpretation to UMass. Vice Chancellor for Research and Engagement Michael Malone said Homeland Security and the State Department denied issuing a visa to a UMass student after a visit to Iran due to a research topic. Delays like that impact faculty scheduling and reduce funding, Malone said, and administrators “don’t want (students) to come here and be disappointed.”

The Boston Globe reported the State Department “will contact UMass to discuss the decision and will answer any questions from other academic institutions about the law.”

Collegian File Photo
Vice Chancellor Michael Malone (Collegian File Photo)

An unnamed department official referred to individual review of visa compliance with U.S. sanctions on the education of Iranian nationals, and said that the law doesn’t prevent prospective students from attending school for science and engineering. The federal government opts for review on “a case-by-case basis,” not a broader admissions policy like the University’s.

This admissions ban directly contradicts the prohibition of discrimination based on “national origin.” It also subverts the University system’s guarantee of “accessible education” that advances knowledge and “improves the lives of the people of… the world.”

If University administrators truly value these principles, they must oppose the law that refuses visas to students solely based on nationality. They certainly should not institute a policy to enforce that law while nearly all other U.S. colleges and universities choose to leave enforcement to DHS and State.

Brooklyn College Professor Corey Robin reviewed the specifics behind the 2012 Iran Threat Reduction and Syria Human Rights Act, and spoke to Tyler Cullis, a legal fellow at the NIAC, and Sam Cutler, policy advisor at a law firm whose focus is U.S. sanctions policy. Cullis said that the Sec. 501 clearly does not obligate universities to enact admissions bans. Vacillating due to uncertainties presented by the ongoing Iranian nuclear talks, Cutler said it’s possible that the Treasury Department could view such admissions as a violation of the law, but couldn’t provide a number or name of universities with a similar policy.

Cullis also provided a “proper reading” of the 2012 law by the University of Pennsylvania. It’s just a webpage with a statement that Iranian nationals are ineligible for visas to study in petroleum or nuclear energy-related fields. Penn isn’t refusing admission; it’s stating that the federal government won’t issue a visa to enter the country.

Robin reacted to updates Saturday by comparing his discussion with “sanctions experts” to fear of anti-communism at academic and cultural institutions in the 1950s. While he warns he may be “over-read(ing)” the story, Robin’s encounter with a modern “advice industry” representative, Cutler, makes him concerned that outside groups may be provoking “nervous administrators” to make decisions based on fear. For him, the surprised reaction of the State Department official compounds those concerns.

While the UMass news release asserts displeasure at the conflict between the admissions ban and “institutional values,” the University’s action doesn’t. A law that refuses visas for higher education based on national origin undermines University and national values. It reinforces mistrust of the U.S. in the Middle East, and inconveniences students whom believe in America’s promise of opportunity and advancement.

By restricting the choice of a specific group based on national origin, the law rejects equality and reminds me of thenot-too-distant past (and present) when policy and government actions systematically degraded the political, social and economic rights of certain groups of people. Policies like this prop up stereotypes that encourage racial violence.

UMass should oppose any law that discriminates, and unless legally forced to do so, it should not enact a policy that would enforce such a law.

Zac Bears can reached at zac@dblstand.com.

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