UMass’ decision to ban Iranian students from certain programs sparks outrage, debate

By Aviva Luttrell

(Collegian File Photo)
(Collegian File Photo)

The University of Massachusetts’ decision to no longer admit Iranian national students into certain graduate programs has sparked widespread outrage and debate about UMass’ obligations under United States sanctions law.

The University disclosed its policy to ban Iranians from specific programs in the College of Engineering and the College of Natural Sciences last week, citing sanctions imposed under the Iran Threat Reduction and Syria Human Rights Act of 2012, which restricts Iranian citizens from obtaining visas for higher education in the U.S. if they plan to prepare for a career in nuclear or energy related research in Iran.

In an email Monday, a State Department official told the Collegian that there have been no changes in U.S. government policy or any new guidance that may have prompted the University’s decision.

According to UMass spokesperson Ed Blaguszewski, the University has been adhering to its interpretation of the sanctions since they were passed. However, a recent inquiry from a student forced administrators to examine the procedures more closely in terms of who could be admitted into specific programs and whether there would be complications for Iranian students returning to the U.S. if they left the country.

According to the State Department official, 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 standards for determining eligibility for visas and admission to the U.S.

“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.”

Mohsen Jalali, a UMass graduate student studying political science and member of the Iranian Graduate Students Association, said he believes the University is “framing a discriminatory policy as law compliance.”

“It is very specific in the law that is says that it applies to the field of visas … it is not the job of the University and educational institutions to enforce the law,” he said. “They are policing people, not complying with any law.”

Jalali said the IGSA is taking steps to pressure UMass to reverse its policy, including publicizing the matter, conducting research and contacting the Iranian American Council, which is in touch with the State Department and other U.S. agencies.

Students have created a Facebook page, titled, “No to the UMass Educational Ban on Iranian Nationals,” which features a statement about the University’s policy and uses the hashtag “WeAreAllUMass.” The page had nearly 2,500 “likes” as of Monday evening.

Furthermore, IGSA members are developing petitions for faculty and students to sign and are in the process of working with the Graduate Student Senate to find out what the administration’s process was for determining the policy.

The State Department official said the State Department will reach out to UMass to discuss its decision, and is available to answer any questions from other academic institutions regarding implementation of the relevant laws.

According to Jalali, IGSA members only found two schools which have written policies similar to UMass’ – Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York and Virginia Commonwealth University.

RPI’s policy, as written on its website, requests that citizens of fully embargoed and sanctioned countries, including Cuba, Iran, Iraq, North Korea, Sudan and Syria, contact its admissions office prior to applying. VCU’s policy on its website states that it will not admit Iranian citizens in the graduate fields of mechanical and nuclear engineering or in programs that have nuclear content.

Blaguszewski wrote in an email to the Collegian Monday that current Iranian students can continue their studies at UMass.

“Moving forward, we will provide current students subject to the U.S. Government restrictions in the affected departments with appropriate advisory support to ensure they are not at risk of violating the sanctions and other applicable regulations including considering support for study in areas not affected by the legislation,” he wrote.

Jalali said he knows of about 20 Iranian students currently enrolled in restricted academic programs at UMass.

“The Iranian community here feels betrayed,” he said. “They are talented people that trusted this administration.”

At least one faculty member in the College of Engineering, Assistant Professor Yahya Modarres-Sadeghi, received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Iran, according to his profile on the UMass website.

Jalali said he fears the University’s broad interpretation of the sanctions could expand to include other academic programs or citizens from other countries.

“The only way to reverse this policy is with the support of community,” he said. “This is not an Iranian matter, this is a community matter.”

Aviva Luttrell can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @AvivaLuttrell.