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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 dated Feb. 6, 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. 

“What a lot of schools have done is they issue an advisory to students -- ‘if you apply to certain programs, keep this in mind’ -- and some have even said this may have a bearing on our [admissions] decision-making process,” said Jamal Abdi, the policy director for the National Iranian American Council. But UMass stands out as having “taken it upon themselves to actually enforce this policy.”

Abdi said that the broad swath of fields restricted to Iranian students under UMass's policy -- not just mechanical engineering but also microbiology -- "further indicates why it should be the consular officers, it should be the State Department, that are making these decisions instead of the university. They’ve just blocked a giant segment of potential Iranian students, and these are not even fields that the U.S. government would prevent them from coming here to study."

UMass Amherst temporarily deleted references to the new Iranian student admission policy from its Web site on Friday, after a blogger wrote about it, before restoring the original pages. A UMass spokesman, Ed Blaguszewski, said the university is standing by the policy, which he described as not a policy per se but rather an explanation of how the university will carry out federal law. The university was prompted to put its procedures in writing in response to a student inquiry.

“We’re no different than any other university under the law to make sure that we follow it,” said Blaguszewski, who added that the policy had been widely vetted and discussed by university leadership and legal counsel. “They’ve studied this and they believe we’ve taken the right approach.”

Asked about the argument that the burden of enforcement of the 2012 sanctions law falls on government as opposed to university officials, Blaguszewski replied, “You’re absolutely right. It is the State Department who is the agency that grants the visas and determines whether someone enters the country or not, but it’s our responsibility under the law to assess potential areas of study with applicability to the law, and that’s what our implementation of the policy focuses on.”

But The Boston Globe reported that an unnamed State Department official said the agency evaluated all visa applications "individually" and that U.S. law did not require broad rejections of students from any country. “U.S. law does not prohibit qualified Iranian nationals coming to the United States for education in science and engineering,” the official told the Globe. “Each application is reviewed on a case-by-case basis.”

In practice, the law can indeed prove complicated for universities, according to Erich Ferrari, principal attorney at Ferrari & Associates, a Washington, D.C.-based law firm that focuses exclusively on sanctions. On the one hand, Ferrari said he agrees that the onus is on the State Department to determine whether a particular student is eligible for a visa -- and if a U.S. university is delivering educational services in relation to a validly awarded student visa, then that university isn’t breaking the law.

But that doesn't mean a university is off the hook once a student from Iran enrolls, Ferrari said. What if a student approved by the State Department for one course of study switches to another -- from the arts to engineering? (On this point it may be relevant that universities are already required to report changes in any international student's major or program to the federal government.) What if a student specializing in an acceptable field takes a few courses in an unacceptable one? What it all comes back to, Ferrari said, is what information was provided to the State Department at the time of the visa’s approval.

“The university has to make sure that the transactions are in line with the visa authorizations,” he said (in sanctions speak), explaining that if he were advising UMass Amherst he would encourage them to do individualized assessments of Iranian students’ courses of study, rather than instituting a blanket ban that leaves them open to allegations of discrimination.

At least one other university, Virginia Commonwealth University, includes language on its graduate admissions Web site stating that due to changes in export regulations, “VCU regrets to inform you that we are not able to admit Iranian citizens in the graduate fields of mechanical and nuclear engineering or in programs that have nuclear content.”

The admissions page for Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute states that it is “increasingly difficult” for the institution to accept students from countries under U.S. sanction: “If you are a citizen of, or were born in, one of the following fully embargoed and sanctioned countries, please contact the Admissions Office at Rensselaer prior to applying: Cuba, Iran, Iraq, North Korea, Sudan, Syria,” it says. 

In 2013, the newsletter for the federal Student and Exchange Visitor Program published a note from the State Department identifying petroleum engineering, petroleum management, nuclear science and nuclear engineering as examples of fields that would be restricted to Iranian students under the sanctions law. Furthermore, “Individuals 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,” the guidance states. “Consular officers will review each visa application submitted on or after Aug. 10, 2012, to determine if the applicant is ineligible for a visa under this provision.” 

Officials at NAFSA: Association of International Educators, which tracks policy issues related to student visas, were not available for comment on Friday.

The issue of U.S. sanctions impacting educational exchange with Iran has come up before. Last year the massive open online course provider Coursera blocked access to its courses for users in Iran and Syria before restoring access to all but advanced STEM courses. In Norway, some Iranian graduate students in the sciences had their residency permits revoked last summer due to international sanctions.

In breaking the news about UMass Amherst’s new policy on his blog, the political scientist Corey Robin described it as a threat to academic freedom and exchange. Despite the long-standing tension between the two countries, the number of Iranian students in the U.S. has been steadily increasing in recent years, according to the Institute of International Education's Open Doors data. In 2013-14, 10,194 Iranian students studied in the U.S. -- the highest number in the last 26 years, even if it falls far short of the peak of more than 50,000 exchange students before the 1979 Iranian revolution.  

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.”

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