On February 6th, UMass Amherst announced that Iranian citizens pursuing an advanced degree in energy or nuclear science would not be allowed to enroll in specific graduate-level programs in the Colleges of Natural Science and Engineering based on a 2012 federal law.
The ban included classes in chemical, electrical, computer, mechanical and industrial engineering, chemistry, microbiology, physics and polymer science.
“We recognize that our adherence to federal law may create difficulties for our students from Iran and regard this as unfortunate,” the university stated at the time. “Furthermore, the exclusion of a class of students from admission directly conflicts with our institutional values and principles. However, as with any college or university, we have no choice but to institute policies and procedure to ensure that we are in full compliance with all applicable laws.”
The announcement triggered a backlash on social media, including a Facebook petition urging people to pressure the State Department and the university to reverse the policy.
Less than two weeks later, UMass Amherst officials announced that after consulting with the State Department, they had decided to drop the 12-day ban and continue to allow Iranian students to enroll in advanced science and engineering courses.
“The decision to revise the university’s approach follows consultation with the State Department and outside counsel,” according to the university’s February18 statement.
““This approach reflects the university’s longstanding commitment to wide access to educational opportunities,” said Michael Malone, vice chancellor for research and engagement at UMass/Amherst.
“We have always believed that excluding students from admission conflicts with our institutional values and principles. It is now clear, after further consultation and deliberation, that we can adopt a less restrictive policy,” Malone added.
“The Iranian Graduate Student Association (IGSA) at UMass Amherst welcomes the revised statement,” the group said in a statement following the reversal. “This is a clear example of how speaking up and demanding equal rights for students can make a difference....
“Moreover, we expect the administration will further clarify the new policy. Moving forward, we hope the process of admitting Iranian students will remain transparent, consistent, and fair, just as it has always been.”
According to the State Department, “unprecedented sanctions” were imposed on Iran by the U.S. and other countries “in response to Iran’s continued illicit nuclear activities… [and] to prevent its further progress in prohibited nuclear activities, as well as to persuade Tehran to address the international community’s concerns about its nuclear program.”
“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,” the law states.
“To comply with the law and its impacts, UMass Amherst will develop individualized study plans based on a student’s projected coursework and research in conjunction with an offer of admission,” the university explained. “The plan will be updated as required during a student’s course of study.”
There are more than 10,000 Iranian nationals attending American universities, with more than half enrolled in post-graduate engineering and science programs.
“We do not believe this was an issue of bad intent on the part of UMass,” said Jamal Abdi, policy director of the National Iranian American Council. “Yet, we were convinced it would become a trend, a chain reaction in higher education. If this policy was allowed to stand our fear was that it would quickly be adopted across the board by other colleges and universities.”