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Excluding Iranian Students


A new policy stating that the University of Massachusetts at Amherst will no longer admit students from Iran to certain engineering- and science-related programs has attracted criticism and stirred questions about the extent of universities’ obligations under U.S. sanctions law.

In a policy, the university said that it will no longer admit Iranian nationals to a range of programs: chemical engineering, chemistry, electrical and computer engineering, mechanical and industrial engineering, microbiology, physics, and polymer science and engineering. The university cites as its rationale a sanctions law passed in 2012 that restricts Iranian citizens seeking to prepare for a career in that country’s energy or nuclear science sectors from getting visas to study in the United States.

The relevant text of the law cited by UMass in its policy states, “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 course work 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.”

“Colleges and universities in the U.S. have found that Iranian students who travel abroad during their studies are being denied reentry by the Department of Homeland Security as a result of these and other regulations,” the UMass policy states. “There are significant penalties, both civil and criminal, that could potentially impact faculty, staff and students, for violations of this Act and the related regulations and restrictions.”

But critics of UMass’s policy say the institution’s interpretation of the law is overly broad and are concerned that other universities will follow its lead. They point out that while the 2012 statute tasks the State Department with rejecting student visa applications in certain cases, it doesn’t specify anything about universities’ admissions policies. In other words, it leaves enforcement up to the government, not the universities.

“Universities seem to be taking this act into their own hands and not allowing any Iranian students to come and study, whereas the act itself is conditional upon returning to work in certain fields — which the State Department itself determines through visa applications,” said Leila Austin, the executive director of the Public Affairs Alliance of Iranian Americans.

UMass Amherst concludes its new policy on Iranian student admissions by acknowledging that it conflicts with its values as an institution: “We recognize that these decisions create difficulties for our students from Iran and regard this as unfortunate. Furthermore, the exclusion of a class of students from admission directly conflicts with our institutional values and principles. However, we must to adhere to the law and hence have instituted this policy to ensure that we are in compliance.”