Zane Razzaq '15
After attracting national attention and backlash, the University of Massachusetts Amherst announced on Feb. 18 that it would reverse its policy banning all Iranian nationals from certain graduate programs in science and engineering.
Earlier this month, UMass Amherst announced the new policy, saying it was in line with U.S. sanctions against Iran. Their original Feb. 6 policy statement referenced the Iran Threat Reduction and Syria Human Rights Act of 2012, which states that Iranian citizens are ineligible for U.S. visas if they are seeking higher education in preparation for a career in Iran’s oil, natural gas or nuclear energy sector.
Some experts on U.S. sanctions policies criticized UMass’s interpretation of the law as overly broad. Tyler Cullis, a legal fellow with the National Iranian American Council, said UMass wrongly interpreted ITRSHRA as obligating universities, rather than the State Department, to ban Iranian students from admission. Normally, all visa applications are reviewed individually in accordance with the requirements of the U.S. Immigration and Nationality Act, which establishes the standards for determining eligibility for admission into the United States. Jamal Abdi, the policy director with the NIAC, said that instead of allowing the State Department to “interview students and figure out which ones don’t get a visa, the university is taking a shortcut and policing it on their own.”
Some faculty criticized the original policy. Emery Berger, a professor at the School of Computer Science at UMass, posted on Twitter that, despite the policy, the School of Computer Science “will admit and welcome Iranian applicants to our program. Signed, Graduate Admissions Chair (me).” In addition, the Department of Architecture faculty voted to object to the policy and call for its revocation. According to the Washington Post, faculty had been working on a statement protesting the policy before its reversal.
After the original policy’s announcement, the Iranian Graduate Student Association and the Persian Student Association at UMass organized in support of a reversal. Both student groups organized several events on campus where professors and students discussed the policy and alternatives. The IGSA also circulated a petition calling for a reversal, collecting nearly 500 signatures. After the policy’s reversal, the IGSA released a statement saying “we are glad that UMass Amherst has decided to honor its values as a world-class educational institution.”
In a statement announcing the policy’s reversal, the university said that after further consultation it now plans on developing individualized study plans “based on a student’s project coursework and research in conjunction with an offer of admission” in order to meet the requirements of federal sanctions law. Michael Malone, vice chancellor for research and engagement, said, “This approach reflects the university’s longstanding commitment to wide access to educational opportunities.”
In a State Department briefing last week, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said government officials spoke with UMass Amherst about the decision and “conveyed that U.S. law does not prohibit qualified Iranian nationals coming to the United States for education in science and engineering.”
On Feb. 19, at a Faculty Senate meeting, UMass Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy said that he apologized for the negative attention the policy brought to the campus and admitted they should have taken a different approach. He also agreed to form a taskforce to do extensive consultation with the university’s Faculty Senate, Graduate Studies Senate and faculty members as the university moves forward.