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The University of Massachusetts at Amherst has reversed a controversial new policy that would have barred Iranian students from certain science and engineering programs, the institution announced on Wednesday. The move followed consultations with the U.S. State Department and outside counsel. 

“We have always believed that excluding students from admission conflicts with our institutional values and principles,” the university’s vice chancellor for research and engagement, Michael Malone, said in a statement. “It is now clear, after further consultation and deliberation, that we can adopt a less restrictive policy.”

In initially announcing that it would not admit Iranian students into seven different STEM-related programs, UMass Amherst cited its obligations under a 2012 federal law that restricts Iranian nationals who are seeking to prepare for a career in that country’s energy or nuclear science sectors from getting a visa to study in the U.S. 

Following an intense backlash, university officials now say that rather than restrict Iranian students from enrolling, they will develop "individualized study plans” that ensure that these students' courses and research endeavors comply with requirements imposed by the sanctions. This is in line with the recommendation of one expert who was quoted in an earlier Inside Higher Ed article on this subject.

Advocates for Iranian students had argued that UMass Amherst's initial interpretation of the sanctions law was overly broad. They maintained that the Iran Threat Reduction and Syria Human Rights Act of 2012 puts the onus of enforcement on government, as opposed to university, officials. (The relevant text of the law 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.”)

“We welcome the reversal, we’re very happy to see that they’ve taken action and consulted with the State Department to make sure that they’re complying with sanctions but doing so in a nuanced way that doesn’t discriminate against Iranian students,” said Jamal Abdi, policy director for the National Iranian American Council. He added that the organization does want to review the university’s new policy to be sure that it satisfies Iranian students' concerns -- but, in general, he's pleased.

“The bottom line is this was the first line of defense,” he said. “We thought that if the policy at UMass would stay in place, there was a potential that other schools would follow suit.”

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