This announcement was recently posted on the website of the graduate school of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst:
The University has determined that recent governmental sanctions pose a significant challenge to its ability to provide a full program of education and research for Iranian students in certain disciplines and programs. Because we must ensure compliance with applicable laws and regulations, the University has determined that it will no longer admit Iranian national students to specific programs in the College of Engineering (i.e., Chemical Engineering, Electrical & Computer Engineering, Mechanical & Industrial Engineering) and in the College of Natural Sciences (i.e., Physics, Chemistry, Microbiology, and Polymer Science & Engineering) effective February 1, 2015.
The full announcement and reasoning—namely, that the university is trying to act in accordance with all the twists and turns of the US sanctions regime—behind this new policy can be found here.
I’m waiting to hear back from some experts on the US sanctions policy as to whether the University is fairly grappling with constraints imposed by the US government or just going rogue.
But while I wait to hear back, I can’t help being reminded of the shitshow we saw when American Studies Association voted for an academic boycott of Israel.
You’ll recall that many self-proclaimed defenders of academic freedom at the time made a lot of noise about the threat that the boycott posed to academic exchange and international conversation. Even though nothing in the ASA vote precluded the exchange of individual scholars or students between the United States and Israel and the organization took great pains to stress that they were calling for institutional boycotts rather than a boycott of individuals.
Well, we don’t need to reprise that argument here. Because now we very clearly have a public university, claiming to act in accordance with US policy, officially banning Iranian national students from applying to entire graduate schools.
Will those putative defenders of academic freedom from the BDS fight speak out against this policy—and speak out far more forcefully than they did then— since this policy really does threaten academic freedom in the way they imagined the academic boycott did?
Or will they defend the university’s decision on the grounds of national security or the need for universities to act in accordance with US law? If they take that path, they’d be admitting a point many of suspected all along: that academic freedom really is not their highest value at all.
What will those defenders of academic freedom say—and, more important, do—now?
While we wait and see what they do, it’s very important that we get word of this policy out. Someone emailed me about it tonight, and I looked all over the internet and could not find a single mention of it. Do other universities have similar policies? Let’s try and gather information and make sure that people in the media and academia and civil liberties organizations know about this.
Updated (February 13, 12 pm)
So I’ve spoken with a few sanctions experts. More on that in a minute. First, some other updates.
1. Turns out that Kaplan, which is a US-based educational company, is implementing an even more draconian version of the policy over in Britain. For similar reasons as U. Mass. And it’s caused some problems.
Kaplan, a US-owned education provider in the UK, is refusing students who are residents of Iran enrolment in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (Stem) subjects as well as any of its post-graduate courses, citing US sanctions.
Applications for more than a dozen Iranians students have been withdrawn since autumn 2013 because the company felt it had to comply with the US regulations and sanctions policy regarding the country.
Critics say sanctions were put in place to punish Iranian authorities, not ordinary people, and that such interpretations were based on a misreading of the policy.
Iranian students studying in Britain’s public universities can generally take such courses.
2. The Washington Institute on Near East Policy, which generally takes a strong pro-Israel line, has a paper on the larger issue of Iranian nationals seeking an education in the US. On pp. 34-38, they explicitly take up the questions addressed by the U. Mass. policy. Amazingly, they come down in favor of a policy of more open access and against collective punishment. Though the specific issue they consider is that of the US government’s multiple-entry visa policies versus single-entry visa policies, the basic point of their conclusion is that the government’s visa regime is already strict enough without requiring further and more general forms of discrimination against all Iranian nationals.
The broad denial of multiple-entry visas to Iranian students in the STEM disciplines—who constitute not only the majority of Iranian students in the United States but the highest percentage of STEM students from any country—reflects a disproportionate response to a geopolitical situation in which most Iranian students have little involvement. More than any other challenge Iranian students face, the denial of multiple-entry visas—especially after announcement of the initiative to issue them—causes significant hardship, in addition to hurting Iranian goodwill toward the United States.
Another apparent incongruity involves the overlap between U.S. law and visa-issuance policy. For instance, Section 306 of EBSVRA affirms that no individual from a state sponsor of international terrorism can receive a nonimmigrant visa to the United States, except if it can be guaranteed that such an individual does “not pose a threat to the safety or national security of the United States.” Moreover, Section 501 of the 2012 Iran Threat Reduction and Syria Human Rights Act affirms that a visa must be denied to any Iranian citizen who “seeks to enter the United States to participate in coursework at an institution of higher education…for a career in the energy sector of Iran or in nuclear science or nuclear engineering or a related field in Iran.”
The text of these laws makes clear that no student deemed a threat for technology transfer can be issued a visa in the first place, a measure that starting in 2012 was even extended to students studying petroleum engineering.
3. Last night, after my post went up, the National Iranian American Council issued a strong statement against the U. Mass policy.
The University’s actions constitute an overly broad interpretation its obligations under sanctions….
4. Which leads me to the experts.
One expert on the sanctions regime I spoke with is Tyler Cullis, a legal fellow and policy associate at the National Iranian American Council. I asked him whether and to what extent U. Mass’s policy was necessitated by the government’s sanctions regime. This is what he wrote back to me:
If you look at the provision at issue (Section 501 of the Iran Threat Reduction Act), it doesn’t obligate universities at all:
SEC. 501. EXCLUSION OF CITIZENS OF IRAN SEEKING EDUCATION RELATING TO THE NUCLEAR AND ENERGY SECTORS OF IRAN.
(a) IN GENERAL.—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 (as defined in section 101(a) of the Higher Education Act of 1965 (20 U.S.C. 1001(a))) 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.
(b) APPLICABILITY.—Subsection (a) applies with respect to visa applications filed on or after the date of the enactment of this Act.
It obligates the State Dept. to deny visas to “aliens who are citizens from Iran” and who participate in coursework to prepare the “alien for” certain careers in Iran. If a visa is issued for an Iranian national to study at a US university, then the State Dept. has made the determination at issue.
The only issue I see arising is one that UMass cites: Iranian students being denied reentry after traveling abroad. If that’s the case and students are being denied reentry for taking coursework in the fields UMass cites, then the problem is the State Dept.
In a second email, he clarified further:
(I want to be clear, however, that I believe this was a misreading of the statutory provision. I haven’t seen the State Dept. read Sec. 501 as broadly as UMass suggests.)
FYI: Here’s a proper reading:
Thanks for the inquiry. The answer is probably – Iranian students in the United States are authorized to perform the activities for which their visa has been granted and U.S. persons are authorized to provide services to Iranian students consistent with those visas. Pursuant to Section 501 of the Iran Threat Reduction and Syria Human Rights Act of 2012, the State Department is prohibited from granting visas to Iranian students seeking access to higher education in order to “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.” UMass likely concluded that they were therefore prohibited from teaching i.e. providing a service, to Iranian students for courses that are directly relevant to these prohibited industries.
Additionally, my understanding is that for certain advanced classes or research, certain technology and/or software is used that would require a license from the Commerce Department to provide to an Iranian, which would require specific authorization.
I’m actually a bit surprised it took UMass this long, I’ve heard a number of schools cut off Iranian students from these types of classes a while ago.
When you say “the answer is probably”: do you mean that it probably is truly necessitated by the sanctions program?
I believe that there is a chance it could be interpreted by OFAC as a violation and since that is the case, most institutions will do whatever they can do comply.
So I’ve been checking around and it seems like most institutions, particularly the top ones, have no such policy. Folks at MIT, Caltech, Berkeley, Michigan: no one can find anything remotely like this. In fact, this is the only university where we can even identify something like this. If it’s such a rational response of universities to the sanctions regime, why is no one doing it (assuming I’ve got that right)?
I can’t speak for those universities but I can tell you we’ve advised universities on this specific issue before. Some schools may not have official or publicized policies but I can tell you that it is happening.
Regarding timing, it’s possible that they are worried that if there is no nuclear deal that Treasury is going to be looking for scalps.
Do you mean that you’ve advised universities to adopt these policies?
Any sense of which universities have adopted these policies? Or how many?
We’ve advised on the requirements of the law and potential risks in the event OFAC determines that there is a violation of the law.
I obviously can’t disclose past clients and couldn’t give you a number on universities that have policies specifically related to this issue. However, every university has an export controls and sanctions policy.
Just to clarify, we have not been formally retained by any universities to advise on this issue, but we’ve provided informal guidance to compliance personnel at universities.
As I reported over the weekend, the website is back up. Also, the State Department expressed puzzlement over the university’s policy, seeming to suggest it was not required or warranted. The real problem, I suggested in this post, may be this freelance “advice industry” that serves as the go-between the government and the academy.
Today, in Inside Higher Ed, UMass announces that it is sticking by its policy. The online magazine also reports that two other universities—Virginia Commonwealth and Rennselear Polytechnic Institute—have similar policies.