UMass Amherst Stops Admitting Iranian Students to Science and Engineering Programs

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Zane Razzaq '15 Staff Writer

In a Feb. 6 policy statement, the University of Massachusetts Amherst announced that it will no longer admit Iranian nationals to several programs in the university’s College of Engineering and the College of Natural Sciences, including computer engineering, physics and chemistry. In addition, the university will require that all enrolled Iranian national students acknowledge their compliance with U.S. sanctions on Iran in writing.

After the college’s new policy drew criticism from foreign policy experts, Iranian students currently studying at UMass Amherst and the larger Iranian American community, the statement was briefly deleted from the university’s website on Feb. 13 before it was later reposted.

In explaining the statement, UMass Amherst referred to the Iran Threat Reduction and Syria Human Rights Act of 2012, which Congress enacted in August 2012. The law, which expands sanctions on Iran with the intention of compelling it to abandon its nuclear program, states that Iranian citizens are ineligible for U.S. visas if they are seeking to “participate in coursework at an institution of higher education to prepare […] for a career in the energy sector of Iran or in nuclear science or nuclear engineering or a related field in Iran.” Iranian citizens who intend to study other fields, like business or computer science, but plan to use these skills in Iran’s oil, natural gas or nuclear energy sectors are also ineligible for visas.

Michael Malone, UMass Amherst’s Vice Chancellor for Research and Engagement, said Homeland Security and the State Department had denied a visa to an Iranian UMass student after visiting Iran because of a research topic. The university’s intention, Malone said, was to protect students, faculty and fund sources from similar disruptions to research. While UMass Amherst acknowledged the decision as “unfortunate,” they also stated their obligation to comply with laws passed by Congress “that restrict the definition of admissible students.”

In a letter to John McCarthy, UMass Amherst’s dean of the graduate school, Jamal Abdi, the National Iranian American Council policy director, urged the college to reconsider and reverse the policy.

“This policy is apparently based on a flawed interpretation of U.S. law,” Abdi wrote. “It may run counter to federal and state protections against discrimination based on national origin.” He acknowledged that while ITRSHRA does authorize the Secretary of State to prohibit visas for Iranian nationals who intend to study for a career in Iran’s oil, natural gas or nuclear energy sector, the law does not require universities to take their own enforcement action. Instead, Abdi wrote that “the duty rests with the U.S. State Department and U.S. Department of Homeland Security, who will only permit prospective Iranian students to obtain a visa if they meet the requirements.” Public Affairs Alliance of Iranian Americans (PAAIA) also released a statement expressing concern over the policy, saying academic exchanges between Iran and the United States can help cultivate goodwill of the Iranian people towards the United States.

An unnamed U.S. State Department official told the Boston Globe the department was aware of UMass Amherst’s decision, but there have been no changes in federal policy involving Iranian students studying in the United States. “All visa applications are reviewed individually in accordance with the requirements of the U.S. Immigration and Nationality Act and other relevant laws that establish detailed standards for determining eligibility for visas and admission to the United States,” the official said. “U.S. law does not prohibit qualified Iranian nationals coming to the United States for education in science and engineering,” the official said. “Each application is reviewed on a case by case basis.” He said the department plans on contacting UMass to discuss this decision.

The policy also received criticism from Iranian, Iranian American and other students at UMass. Shirin Hakim, the former president of the UMass Persian Student Association, said, “If nothing is done to change this, it will impact future prospects for Iranian students who wish to study in the States and cultural exchange.” Olivia MacLennan ’14, a current graduate student in UMass Amherst’s public policy program, said, “I think the decision is discriminatory and unnecessary ... This policy even bans Iranian students from undergraduate pre-med majors like microbiology. What’s more, the policy applies to already enrolled students, meaning that current students may be forced to choose between changing their major or leaving the school.”

UMass Amherst’s decision to no longer admit Iranian nationals is the latest example of sanctions placed on Iran by the U.S. affecting Iranian students. In addition to being denied visas, Iranian students have also reported having American banks close their accounts or being barred from obtaining student loans. While UMass Amherst publicly announcing the decision is unique, Trita Parsi, the president of NIAC, said there are “undoubtedly other universities that have misinterpreted the law” and quietly implemented similar policies.