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UMass reverses ban on Iranian students in science graduate programs

University of Massachusetts at Amherst students head across campus. (Jonathan Wiggs/Boston Globe via Getty Images)

After significant pushback from within and beyond the campus community, University of Massachusetts at Amherst officials on Wednesday reversed a decision to ban Iranian students from some science and engineering graduate programs.

The ban – an attempt to comply with U.S. sanctions against Iran by preventing U.S. institutions from furthering that country’s citizens’ education in fields relating to nuclear engineering, nuclear science and energy issues – was unusual but not unique in higher education.

After consulting with lawyers and State Department officials, UMass leaders announced they would develop individualized study plans to ensure compliance with the law.

“This approach reflects the university’s longstanding commitment to wide access to educational opportunities,” said Michael Malone, vice chancellor for research and engagement, in a statement Wednesday afternoon. “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.”

Faculty and students at the public flagship reacted with shock to the ban, which was announced this month, circulating petitions to reverse it. Faculty were working on a statement objecting to the policy.

Emery Berger, a UMass professor, posted on Twitter that the School of Computer Science “will admit and welcomes #Iranian applicants to our program. Signed, Graduate Admissions Chair (me).”

He said a university in a strongly Republican “red state” might not be surprised by such a rule but that it came as a shock in Amherst, which hosts 28,000 undergraduate and graduate students in rural western Massachusetts. “This is an incredibly liberal and incredibly tolerant, incredibly welcoming place,” he said.

Berger said the ban was “appalling” for many reasons, citing the idea that universities should  welcome the brightest students and let federal agencies determine if there is a security reason to turn someone away.

Some argued that the ban was a reasonable attempt to comply with U.S. laws designed to address concerns about Iran’s nuclear program.

In a State Department briefing Wednesday, a spokesman said government officials “had a conversation with UMass Amherst about their decision. And also conveyed that U.S. law does not prohibit qualified Iranian nationals coming to the United States for education in science and engineering. We also would offer to provide the necessary guidance for any school that has questions about this, or wants to have discussions about the implementation of relevant laws.”

The policy read, in part:

“UMass Amherst is committed to admitting students who can successfully complete their selected course of study and to providing the widest range of opportunities to all qualified students who are accepted. The University is also obliged to respect laws passed by Congress that restrict the definition of admissible students.
In August 2012, Congress enacted the ‘Iran Threat Reduction and Syria Human Rights Act of 2012,’ (Pub.L. 112-158,, August 10, 2012), which excludes citizens of Iran from education in the United States if they plan to focus on nuclear and, more broadly, energy-related research in Iran.
In July 2013, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security provided clarification on H.R. 1905, stating that Iranian citizens are ineligible for U.S. visas if they are seeking to participate in higher education in preparation for a career in Iran’s petroleum, natural gas, nuclear energy, nuclear science, or nuclear engineering fields. Additionally, Iranian citizens seeking to study in other fields, such as business, management or computer science, but who intend to use these skills in Iran’s oil, natural gas or nuclear energy sectors, are also ineligible for visas.”

Jamal Abdi, policy director for the National Iranian American Council, said the organization welcomed the reversal of the “discrimination policy. That’s a major positive step.” He said they knew the State Department had been working with UMass to change the policy.

But not all students were embracing the school’s response, he said; there are still limits on what Iranian students can study. “There may be no perfect solutions while the sanctions remain in place,” he said.

“People in Iran are largely pro-America,” Abdi said. “Young Iranians aspire to come to the U.S., study at our schools, learn more about American culture.

“We don’t want to poison that relationship because that’s one that holds hope for the two countries and for Iran itself.”