Our lives matter: Iranian admission policy shows UMass isn’t working in good faith on diversity

By Alisina Saee-Nazari

(Collegian file photo)
(Collegian file photo)

On Oct. 16, 2014, the University of Massachusetts community united in the Student Union Ballroom for the first Diversity Strategic Planning Steering Committee Town Hall Meeting. Outraged students occupied the room wearing black t-shirts bearing the phrase “UMass stands against racism” and demanding change. The meeting was held in regard to recent hate crimes and death threats on campus targeted at Black and Latino/a students.

Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy called on the committee to create a plan of action by the end of fall semester, congruent with Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs and Campus Life Enku Gelaye’s words, “Hate speech and intolerance is unacceptable in our community.”

UMass failed to meet Gelaye’s pledge as the University is no longer admitting Iranian nationals into certain programs in the Colleges of Engineering and Natural Sciences.

During the October town hall meeting, graduate student Durryle Brooks expressed how “campus leadership must be accountable in its response to racism on our campus.” Now campus leadership is responsible for racial discrimination, and has left it to the victims to hold them accountable.

A UMass news release acknowledged that the new policy forcing “the exclusion of a class of students from admission” conflicts with “institutional values and principles.”

Without previously informing the Iranian community of its decision, UMass managed to “recognize that these decisions create difficulties for our students from Iran,” and described the policy as “unfortunate.” The University’s attempt to avoid violating U.S. sanctions against Iran is “rare if not unique among U.S. universities,” and succeeded in “(catching) the U.S. State Department by surprise,” according to the Boston Globe.

The Iran Threat Reduction and Syria Human Rights Act of 2012 declares Iranian citizens ineligible for U.S. visas to seek higher education in energy-related fields, clinging to the fear and assumption that every Iranian science student dreams of building a nuclear bomb. Yet, “U.S. law does not prohibit qualified Iranian nationals coming to the United States for education in science and engineering,” according to a U.S. State Department official in an interview with the Globe, because “each application is reviewed on a case-by-case basis.”

The State Department itself is confused as to why UMass has barred Iranian students from continuing their educations despite there being no such changes in federal policy. Administrators in Whitmore have overzealously portrayed legal compliance to the federal government and opposition to the policy toward their marginalized students.

As an Iranian-American student at UMass, the recent policy changes don’t surprise me, just as the administration’s inaction on racist death threats didn’t surprise Durryle Brooks last semester when he said, “The recent hate crimes on campus are evidence of an epidemic present in our communities and our nation as a whole, which if ignored will continue to destroy us all. These heinous acts are but symptoms of an illness that circulates through the veins of our society.”

Americans connote the Middle East with terrorism. “Muslim,” “Middle Eastern” and “threat” have become interchangeable, represented by brown skin, thick eyebrows, large beards or hijabs.

National arrogance and racially motivated moral superiority were brutally exposed on Feb. 10, when Deah Shaddy Barakat, 23, Yusor Abu-Salha, 21, and Razan Abu-Salha, 19, were shot to death near the University of North Carolina campus. Craig Stephen Hicks, 46, allegedly murdered the three Muslim students in cold blood over “an ongoing neighbor dispute over parking,” according to Lt. Joshua Mecimore. The failure to label Hicks a terrorist and his acts a hate crime are the result of a societal epidemic.

American’s religious arrogance separates Islam as the exception – other religions aren’t automatically viewed as violent or fundamentalist.

It is this bigotry that scrutinizes Yusor and Razan for wearing hijabs, portraying a “Muslim,” but immediately perceived as a “threat.” It is this bigotry that excludes people from higher education, and sends Iranian students home.

The UMass news release states the “University is also obliged to respect laws passed by Congress that restrict the definition of admissible students,” but their adherence to the law is not an obligation.

The University has gone above and beyond to wrongfully appease federal law while already under federal investigation for mishandling sexual assault cases and non-compliance with Title IX.

Instead of protecting their students, an administration that held a town meeting on diversity, equity and inclusion just last semester was more concerned with protecting the University on its brochures.

UMass has fallen victim to national bigotry toward the Middle East and possibly set a precedent for other universities to follow. I’ll see everyone at the next town hall meeting.

Alisina Saee-Nazari is a Collegian contributor and can be reached at [email protected]