The university, apparently alone among the country’s institutions of higher education, says they've instituted the ban to comply with federal sanctions.
The change in admissions policy, announced Feb. 6, cites the “Iran Threat Reduction and Syria Human Rights Act of 2012,” which was intended to prevent Iranians from coming to the US to study in nuclear, or more broadly, energy related fields. The administration called the decision “unfortunate” and conceded that “ these decisions create difficulties for our students from Iran.”
The fields UMass has barred seem to cover a much broader area that the one outlined in the law. They are listed as (in the College of Engineering) Chemical Engineering, Electrical & Computer Engineering, Mechanical & Industrial Engineering and (in the College of Natural Sciences) Physics, Chemistry, Microbiology, and Polymer Science & Engineering.
In addition to the surprising breadth of fields covered by the school’s ban, the announcement seems to take on the responsibilities given to the Department of Homeland Security and the State Department, which issues visas. The university specifically cites the follow language from the law:
“The Secretary of State shall deny a visa to, and the Secretary of Homeland Security shall exclude from the United States, any alien who is a citizen of Iran that the Secretary of State determines seeks to enter the United States to participate in coursework at an institution of higher education…to prepare the alien for a career in the energy sector of Iran or in nuclear science or nuclear engineering or a related field in Iran.” (emphasis added)
“A Flawed Interpretation”
The reaction to the policy change has been swift. A facebook page created to organize those opposed to the ban has garnered over 3,000 “likes,” a Change.org petition is already collecting signatures, and a discussion about the policy has been organized by the campus’ International Relations Club and Persian Students Association, slated for Wednesday evening.
— Lisa S. Scott (@lisascottbcd) February 18, 2015
"This policy enacted by UMass is clearly in conflict with academic values and principles that prohibit discrimination on the basis of color, race, religion, age, sex, and national origin,” says an open letter of protest written by the Iranian Graduate Student Association and the Persian Student Association.
"US law does not prohibit qualified Iranian nationals coming to the United States for education in science and engineering," a State Department official told the Boston Globe. And most critics see this as a bizarre overreach into government and law enforcement terrain.
The ban is “a flawed interpretation of U.S. law and may run counter to federal and state protections against discrimination based on national origin, ” Jamal Abdi, Policy Director for The National Iranian American Council wrote in an open letter to the university administration. Abdi also noted that the law “does not require that universities take their own enforcement action.”
The hashtag #weareallumass is focusing protest in the Twitterverse. Some faculty have already voiced their opposition, while others are pointing to the irony of the policy following on the heels of a campus diversity report which calls for a “a fully inclusive campus.”
— Emery Berger (@emeryberger) February 14, 2015
— Anthony Rentsch (@Anthony_Rentsch) February 13, 2015
While it may be true that universities are “obliged to respect laws passed by Congress that restrict the definition of admissible students” — as UMass stresses in their announcement — no other university has so far taken it upon themselves to enforce that law at the point of admissions, essentially pre-empting government vetting of visa applications.