The University of Massachusetts at Amherst (UMass) made headlines with its announcement on the 6th of February that it would be instating a ban on Iranian nationals from chemical, computer and mechanical engineering graduate programmes. This controversial decision made by UMass displays a unique instance in which foreign policy has been taken to extreme measures by parties not directly involved in policymaking. It has spawned a critical reflection on when fear of threat infringes upon the liberal freedoms that are so inherent to the character of countries such as the United States.
The university cited the Iranian Threat Reduction and Syria Human Rights Act of 2012 as the motivation for its actions, justifying its policy as compliance with the federal law. The 2012 law seeks to prohibit Iranian citizens from becoming educated at American universities if they are expected to return to Iran afterwards to pursue a career in Iran’s petroleum, natural gas, nuclear energy, nuclear science, or nuclear engineering fields. However, it is the State Department and the Department of Homeland Security that are expected to enforce this regulation by rejecting visa applications. The law reads:
‘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.’
Nowhere does the law state that universities should take it upon themselves to turn away students based on their Iranian nationality or adopt any such policy to restrict their entry into graduate programmes. The announcement made by UMass explained that it was imposing this ban to avoid penalties from non-compliance to this federal law. This explanation was met by confusion by US State officials given the fact the university chose this moment to implement a policy based on a law set back in 2012. State officials clarified that the law does not strictly prohibit all Iranian nationals from pursing an American degree in science or engineering; the US government does not expect schools to uphold visa provisions on its own as applications are considering on a case-by-case basis, and indeed the federal government would be better suited to identifying potential students that could constitute a threat to security than any university admission office. Some American universities suggest on their websites that Iranian nationals would have difficulty securing a visa to study in certain fields, but few have gone as far as UMass to try to implement a specific university policy or outright ban.
Some UMass staff have expressed surprise at their employer’s decision because Massachusetts is historically seen as such a liberal and progressive state. UMass professor Emery Berger voiced his opinion that a policy emerging in a strong Republican “red state” would not come as such of a surprise, but it was particularly outrageous to have come from the University of Massachusetts system.
The university’s ban was met with considerable backlash from the community and instigated an incredible display of student solidarity. On-campus protests along with the #weareallUMass movement spread throughout social media platforms, with nearly all conveying outrage and specifically Iranian students expressing feelings of betrayal and distress. This issue calls into question the absolute academic freedom that so many around the world admire about America. It is almost a cruel irony that Iranian students coming to the United States to pursue an education that is denied to them in their home country would face the same ban in the supposed ‘land of opportunity’. Iranian students voiced disbelief and severe disappointment that the democratic ideals that some advocated for in Iran were now being denied to them in the country that prides itself as being a beacon for democracy around the globe. Some young Iranians aspire to receive their education in the United States and learn about American culture; discriminatory policies at any other level than the federal government banning them will only fuel hostility from a domestic population that is mainly pro-American and likewise dissatisfied with the Iranian government in some aspects. A university’s job is to admit the best and brightest student it can and leave it to federal agencies to identify international security threats from entry into the country. It is an egregious affront to the principles of freedom to education for universities to try and adopt foreign policy sanctions; this appears to be discrimination in the cloak of federal law. The indignation expressed by UMass’s student body should be applauded, and it is an encouraging signal about the attitude of the generation that will be leading the world in the not so distant future.
Amidst the strong opposition and national media coverage UMass’s ban received, the university backtracked on its decision only days later on the 18th of February. This reversal came about after consultation with the US State Department that reinforced that the university was not obligated to explicitly follow US sanctions through admission policies. This is not to say UMass has dumped the policy on Iranian students altogether; instead of a flat out ban for nationals completely graduate programmes in the Colleges of Engineering or Natural Sciences, the UMass announced it would develop individualised study programmes for Iranian students working towards aforementioned degrees. It should be noted though that this is also not to say that the government should not be vigilant in its review of visa applications to identify potential risks and deny visa applications when appropriate – foreign policy and skepticism does have its place: but not in university admissions offices. The legacy of the university’s initial actions is likely to have negative lasting effects on the school’s reputation to international students, and more importantly may discourage nationals of states that are adversaries of the US government.from seeking educational opportunities in the United States.
From this we can take away an important lesson: foreign threats, while demanding attention and sometimes action, should not inspire policy so drastic that it may change the character of the state. In fact, the fundamental liberties that are so cherished in the United States – indiscriminate access to education, gender equality, freedom of religion—the very values that make the West fear regimes such as Iran where they are not upheld, makes protecting these ideals of the utmost importance for countries such as the United States. A world in which fear begins to segregate and foster suspicion amongst the youth is a potentially much darker future than one with a nuclear Iran.