State Department Expresses Surprise Over UMass Policy

by Corey Robin on February 14, 2015

My sister Melissa just sent me a piece from today’s Boston Globe on the UMass Iranian student situation. The big blockbuster in the piece is this:

The college’s new policy, which appears to be rare if not unique among US universities, appeared to catch the US State Department by surprise

The State Department had no idea that this policy was in the offing, and more important, seems to believe or suggest that the policy may be unnecessary.

A US State Department official said that the department was aware of news reports about the UMass decision but that there had been no changes in federal policy regarding Iranian students and he could not say why UMass would change its policy. The department will contact UMass to discuss the decision and will answer any questions from other academic institutions about the law, the official said.

“All visa applications are reviewed individually in accordance with the requirements of the US Immigration and Nationality Act and other relevant laws that establish detailed standards for determining eligibility for visas and admission to the United States,” the official, who declined to be quoted by name, said in an e-mail.

“US law does not prohibit qualified Iranian nationals coming to the United States for education in science and engineering,” the official continued. “Each application is reviewed on a case-by-case basis.”

Got that? It is not US law that prohibits Iranian nationals from applying and enrolling in UMass’s engineering and natural sciences graduate programs; it is UMass itself that is doing that.

In one graf, the UMass Vice Chancellor for Research and Engagement, Mike Malone, claims that the policy was developed in consultation with faculty and students (though every student and faculty member I’ve talked to at UMass claimed they only learned of the policy from my blog).

But in a later graf Malone gives a different story:

Malone said that after discussing the issue with outside legal counsel and with faculty at other institutions, administrators believe UMass is in the mainstream of American institutions in having such a policy, though it is rare to publish it.

The moment this story broke and I began talking with sanctions experts, one of whom works for a law firm that specializes in these questions (see update here), I got nervous. Forgive what I’m sure is an overwrought historical excursus, but which may be illuminative nonetheless.

Back during the McCarthy years, institutions like UMass—and outside academe as well; in Hollywood and other parts of the culture industry; and throughout the economy as a whole—were often run by nervous administrators and managers and CEOs who wanted to be in compliance with the government. These weren’t the true-believer anticommunist types, of which there were many; these were just run of the mill, apolitical or even liberal, apparatchiks whose first duty, they felt, was to their job and their institution.

Uncertain about the law and government rules, fearful that if they broke them they or their institutions would suffer, these administrators turned to outside consultants—often, lawyers—for “advice.” Except that the advice industry was itself stacked with two types: either true-believing anticommunists, who had a vested interest in purging the country of reds and leftists and liberals and more, or bottom-liners (and bottom-feeders) whose livelihood depended upon institutions like UMass needing their “advice.”

The combination of this advice industry and nervous administrators was lethal: through some elaborate dance of advice and consent, repressive policies were propounded. Not by force, not by threat, but voluntarily, consensually. The advice-givers would just offer a neutral-sounding statement of the facts, making sense of a byzantine and elaborate set of rules and procedures to harried and overworked administrators; and then the harried and overworked, and fearful, administrators would take the most conservative reading of that advice, playing it safe, and propound the most draconian version of the rules.

A “clearance industry”—seriously, that was what it was called—was set up, in which individuals would go through elaborate rituals of repentance, to prove they were no longer communists or even sympathizers; and if they didn’t go through the rituals, which were institutionalized and regularized everywhere, they were blacklisted and purged. That’s how McCarthyism worked; that’s how it touched so many millions of lives.

It wasn’t simply the state that was the problem in other words; it was the relay system of coercion that private actors in civil society set up, that radiated the state’s power far beyond what it was capable of, that made the whole system of repression as widespread as it was. This, incidentally, was precisely the kind of society Hobbes envisioned in Leviathan: not simply an all-powerful singleton sovereign, but an army of preachers and teachers, working in churches and—wait for it: universities—who would extend the power of the sovereign far beyond what it could muster.

I don’t want to over-read the UMass story. But that mention of seeking “outside legal counsel” and my conversation yesterday with one representative—perfectly well meaning and well intentioned, from what I can gather—of that advice industry makes me worried that the policy at UMass, and other institutions as well, is being driven by a similar dynamic. Particularly when you throw in the State Department’s surprise and clear statement that this policy is not actually required by US government policy.

In other news, after yesterday’s announcement here (see update) that UMass had taken down the policy from its website, it now seems to be back up.



Rich Puchalsky 02.14.15 at 2:48 pm

This comment on the last thread linked to RPI. RPI has this on its Web site:

As a national research institution, Rensselaer’s activities are subject to restrictions by several U.S. agencies, including the Department of State, Department of Commerce, and Department of the Treasury. This makes it increasingly difficult for the Institute to accept students from countries that are on the ITAR, EAR, and OFAC watch lists. 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.

I think that is functionally very similar to Umass. I think the “many universities have policies like this, but it’s rare to publish it” statement is credible.


Corey Robin 02.14.15 at 2:53 pm

I’m really curious to know if you’re right, Rich. Am hoping some of the relevant organizations will start collecting real data on this. From what I’m hearing, if you are right, there may actually be an opportunity here to change that.


SamChevre 02.14.15 at 3:02 pm

This sounds exactly like the way that sexual harassment law works, and the way that opposition to homosexuality is currently be handled.


Vladimir 02.14.15 at 3:16 pm

Prof. Robin, has any expert you’ve discussed this with , said anything about how money is transferred. I’m wondering if UMass fears having money from certain Iranian banks or foundations deposited into their accounts. During the revolution in Libya, many Libyan students in North America found themselves without access to stipends financed by that country. There is an outfit in Ottawa that runs scholarship programs for foreign governments, and if I recall correctly, they had to get permission from the Canadian government to access and disburse funds from organisations linked to the Libyan government.


Kiwanda 02.14.15 at 3:22 pm

It may be true that “US law does not prohibit qualified Iranian nationals coming to the United States for education in science and engineering,” but those ITAR restrictions do prohibit Iranian nationals from being anywhere within earshot of a large variety of sensitive government-funded work, or possibly receiving related emails, etc. Violation of those prohibitions would end funding.

So those Iranian nationals can come to the U.S., but their presence would constitute a clear and present danger to a large number of research dollars. My guess would be that the universities are taking the simplest, safest course for preserving those dollars, namely, not admitting Iranians.

There are also departments including professors with possibly a bit of hostility to Iranians, that also have few Iranian students, but that is probably just coincidence.


Fuzzy Dunlop 02.14.15 at 5:47 pm

Kiwanda @5 I wonder if any university has ever lost research dollars in this way (b/c of Iranians or people of other nationalities)?

Corey’s comparison to McCarthyism makes sense. What is really bizarre about this whole thing, to me, is that for all the decades that the Islamic Republic has been in existence, I thought Iranians were generally welcome to study in the US, or to otherwise essentially ‘defect’ here (in my experience, Iranians who come here to study tend to want to stay). Sure, there has always been social discrimination–racism/islamophobia–but at least as a legacy of the very close ties between the US and Iran, the government wasn’t going out of its way to make things hard for Iranian expats/immigrants. That was my impression, I could be wrong. But if I’m not wrong, where is this coming from now? Are certain powers-that-be threatened by the prospect of small numbers of Iranian-Americans joining the social/economic elite, and this is a way to socially-engineer more anti-Iranian bigotry into existence–via the government’s & other institutions’ ability to exercise moral authority/establish norms? Is it just that the memory/significance of the Shah’s era is fading? It’s like there’s a back-and-forth, with stuff like the recognitions of Islamic art by museums (like the Met) on one side, and stuff like this on the other.


shah8 02.14.15 at 7:43 pm

I am strongly more inclined to think that this is an intentionally discriminatory policy that is enforced informally through personal networks, and that this is not the product of anxious overcompliance as per McCarthyism. Furthermore, anxious overcompliance (among a number of bureaucratic oopsie-daisies excuses) is routinely used to explain unveiled discriminatory policies in a better light.

There is a simple test for whether my interpretation is correct: How broad a brush is this “Iranian-ness”? Iran is very diverse, not only with Fars, but also Azeri, Armenian, Kurds, Baluchs, etc, and not all of the “minorities” are completely locked out of things. Can someone from Azerbaijan effectively apply to UMass graduate programs? Going further, Iran has a diaspora with many people maintaining a strong connection to home–India, Australia, Canada, Latin America, etc. Can an Iranian who was born in Australia apply to any of these programs? The fact that RPI includes naturalized citizens, who pretty much cannot be likely to be entangled into any sanctions regime for reasons even stronger than those that receive visas, in their policy is disturbing.


Matt 02.14.15 at 8:42 pm

Are certain powers-that-be threatened by the prospect of small numbers of Iranian-Americans joining the social/economic elite, and this is a way to socially-engineer more anti-Iranian bigotry into existence–via the government’s & other institutions’ ability to exercise moral authority/establish norms? Is it just that the memory/significance of the Shah’s era is fading? It’s like there’s a back-and-forth, with stuff like the recognitions of Islamic art by museums (like the Met) on one side, and stuff like this on the other.

If — if — there is unified animating logic behind this decision rather than in-institution fear mixing without outside opportunism — I don’t think it is about Iranians joining the social/economic elite. I think it is about Western educated specialists using their expertise to arm their countries or sub-national groups.

The father of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program, A.Q. Khan, learned and contributed to nuclear engineering while in the Netherlands. High ranking scientists in Iraq’s bioweapons research program were educated in the UK. Engineers are overrepresented among the ranks of terrorists:

You might reasonably ask: why don’t the same restrictions apply to Saudis, Jordanians, Tamils, or any other national or ethnic group that has in recent times been associated with terrorism or attempts to acquire advanced weapons? This is where the logic, if it’s even there, is inconsistent. Iran’s on the shit-list not because they are worse than any nearby countries on human rights, destabilizing weapons, or terrorism. They’re on that list because… they’re not great on any of those measures, and they don’t have a Very Special Relationship with the USA like utterly execrable Saudi Arabia.


Fuzzy Dunlop 02.14.15 at 8:57 pm

You might reasonably ask: why don’t the same restrictions apply to Saudis, Jordanians, Tamils, or any other national or ethnic group that has in recent times been associated with terrorism or attempts to acquire advanced weapons?

Yeah, this is the real problem. I think any unified animating logic would probably be similar to that behind other conservative causes, so the goal would then be to start a war with Iran and/or Syria, and more immediately & urgently, to undermine a US-Iranian nuclear deal. But it would also be consistent with a more meta-, strategic goal of undermining the social position of Iranians in the US, who are increasingly becoming politically organized and culturally assimilated.


Rich Puchalsky 02.14.15 at 8:58 pm

Acquisition of nuclear and other technology has long been something that the U.S. tries to restrict to “friendly” nations and keep from “unfriendly” ones: let’s not think that some kind of technocratic judgement about abstract likelihood of terrorism is being made. Here’s some historical memory: back in 1975, there was a group MIT Coalition Against Training Nuclear Engineers for the Shah that was protesting a State Dept.-supported attempt *to* transfer nuclear technology to Iran, back when Iran was considered to be friendly. Familiar names like Dixy Lee Ray come up.


Matt 02.14.15 at 9:41 pm

When I said so ~10 years past this was an unpopular opinion, but I’ll air it here again: I don’t think it is possible to keep countries from acquiring the latent potential for cruise missiles, chemical weapons, and other “destabilizing” arms while simultaneously promoting industrialization for civil purposes. The basic infrastructure that you use to make plastics, agrochemicals, and clean water can also be turned to making chemical weapons. If you can make airplanes you can make cruise missiles.

It’s a little harder to make the call with nuclear materials, because there are many non-nuclear ways to produce electricity. I will say that I think it’s deplorable for Western governments to nurture nuclear power and its associated fuel cycle technology at home while trying to prevent the spread of those same technologies overseas. The USA would never agree to outsource all critical nuclear industry to the Netherlands in recognition of its own historical abuse of said technology to make weapons. Don’t expect Iran to sign up for special safety-scissors treatment while Israel gets a pass on its covert nuclear weapons and while a half dozen countries, the USA foremost, get a pass on their openly flaunted nuclear weapons.

I think that the Chemical Weapons Convention is a good model for eliminating deplorable weapons. All the signatories eliminate stockpiles, agree to inspections, and commit not to re-acquire stockpiles in the future. There is no special exception for nations that had acquired large arsenals before ratification. The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty has done very poorly by comparison. The big powers pushing it in the first place seem committed to eliminating their own weapons after forever plus a day. They’re also pushing for more stringent measures not in the original text, like the 1997 Additional Protocol, to control nations that didn’t already join the weapons club.

I can’t really cheer the spread of enabling technologies for nuclear weapons, or nuclear weapons themselves, to additional states. Even if they stabilize military rivalries for a while it seems to be at the risk of the most horrible failure mode in all of recorded history. Nor can I really support that historical nuclear weapons states should continue to maintain their warheads and upgrade delivery systems while working to keep the rest of the world non-nuclear, even though I have often wondered if the Cold War would have become another total war in the absence of mutual nuclear armament. And I see the horror that happens to small powers with no nuclear weapons when the regime-changers get an urge.


Professor Siamak Movahedi 02.15.15 at 12:12 am

It is interesting that a bigot State Supreme Court judge in Alabama is standing up to an order of a Federal court only to protect his homophobic values against the interference of the Federal Government, but a CEO of a university—an allegedly liberal state university—has no integrity to stand up for the value of academic freedom to defend it against the perceived injunctions of the Federal government. Here I do not wish to wear my psychoanalytic hat to get into the dynamics of such “misreading” or “misperceiving”, but with such mentality, are we surprised to hear about rise in hate crimes everywhere in the country? Isn’t this mentality a representative of institutional racism on every level of society? If this is what a university does, how can we expect a different attitude from other institutions and agencies? This form of exclusionary policies is the back bone of institutions of higher education which is in a great extent responsible of social inequality. However, to put that statement on the university website requires a special vision and organizational intelligence. Even the Ferguson Police department did not put such an exclusionary and discriminatory statements on their website that “the Ferguson Police Department has determined that it will no longer protect the life of African Americans or other black or brown skin nationals.” The irony is that on the same website, where the university puts a blatantly discriminatory statement against Iranian students, it attempts apparently to educate students —and hopefully its administration– as to the meaning of bias!! (See below) What a stupid hypocrisy? Perhaps the university “Lawyers” with whom the UMASS Amherst Vice Chancellor for Research and Disengagement, Mike Malone, had consulted, saw no “legal” contradiction between the two stands And conceptual and ethical contradictions are not of their concerns. And in line with Corey Robin’ excellent analysis, these guys are the same brand of lawyers (but not as sophisticated and well paid as those) who advised the Busch administration on the legality of “enhanced interrogation techniques” including waterboarding by CIA. The one contribution of the engineers (albeit more dangerous than nuclear engineers) of this written policy is to provide their social science and humanity professors with a good example of institutional racism. Never, in my half a century of teaching of sociology and social psychology have I ever come across a better example of blatant “institutional racism” than the stipulation on the UMASS Amherst website. I will be using it in my different lectures from now on.

The Definition fo Bias at UMASS Amherst Website:
What is Bias?
Bias generally refers to any belief, attitude, behavior or practice that reflects an assumed superiority of one group over another. Bias is expressed through prejudice or discrimination and can be overt or covert. Bias can be directed against individuals or groups, but it can also be institutionalized into policies, practices and structures. While freedom of expression and the open exchange of ideas are a vital part of the educational discourse, bias activity dehumanizes people, erodes individual rights, debilitates morale, and interferes with the effectiveness of work and learning environments…


bi-state curious 02.15.15 at 12:20 am

What does Homeland Security have to say on this? In its pdf explanation UMass-Amherst cites as an issue Homeland Security’s denial of reentry to students with visas, not State’s issuance of visas.


rdb 02.15.15 at 1:14 am

Is this the US equivalent (ITAR) of Australia’s Act of Intellectual Terrorism: DTCA 2012 showing it’s reach?

Australia Prepares to Eat its Brains

A key feature of the Act is that it requires prior permission to communicate new research to a foreign national in any of the nominated areas. This includes, but is hardly limited to, publishing research in academic journals. As many submissions on the bill to the Senate Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade point out, this requirement implies that the Department of Defence (DoD) would need sufficient expertise across all of the domains listed in the DSGL to judge whether or not proposed research would require a permit. Plausibly, this is a level of expertise which the DoD does not have, nor will ever have. But the difficulties with the Act go far beyond the need to hire thousands of experts to make permit judgments upon research and education.

Obtaining prior approval for each research project and, possibly, each research communication would put an end to a very large amount of research activity in Australia, directing researchers, students and subsequent economic activity elsewhere. Permission would be required to publish across a huge range of areas under active research in the university sector.

DTCA 2012 and DTCB 2015 set to damage Australia’s capabilities in science and technology links at January.

Avoiding applicants from countries that could trigger increased ITAR compliance costs may be seen as good practice.


Peter T 02.15.15 at 2:07 am

Corey’s observations about the mixture of fear and ideology are spot on. But what the university may have had in mind is the increasing use of US civil actions to extract money from foreign parties. A bank that fails to spot a transfer that ultimately goes back to some sanctioned entity will pay large fines. An overseas company that sells tractors to someone that sells them to Cuba will again settle for a fine as the price of doing business in the US. Some US citizen whose cousin was injured in Lebanon will persuade a US court that Iran was responsible and so on.

It’s all reminiscent of a post at LGM by Erik Loomis on the influx of lawyers who found ways around Mexican land titles:

Just part of the increasingly desperate grifts that seem to be part of US life these days.


John B 02.15.15 at 2:20 am

I’m a lawyer who occasionally gives sanctions advice, but it’s not my specialty and I’m not an expert. But my impression is that the laws are often vague, like many censorship regimes. Speaking about certain topics in front of an audience that includes Iranian nationals may constitute “exporting” a controlled technology and expose you to fines or criminal prosecution. And it’s not always possible to be sure what those topics are. Vague fears often lead to self-censorship. For State to say “Oh, no, this isn’t our doing” sounds disingenuous. They intend to scare people so much that they don’t even come close to breaking the law, and, hence, naturally discourage some legitimate speech.

Again, I’m not an expert, and maybe different rules apply to students. That is the situation with businesses, however. No point in taking a risk. In theory, if in doubt, one can ask for pre-clearance before saying something, but I could imagine a university hesitating to do that.


T 02.15.15 at 2:47 am

“In its pdf explanation UMass-Amherst cites as an issue Homeland Security’s denial of reentry to students with visas, not State’s issuance of visas.”

Couple this with gov’t funding of science labs and potential security clearance issues and it just might be the U is responding to gov’t restrictions. I guess we’ll wait for a journalist or intrepid blogger to figure this out.

If it is the gov’t, it wouldn’t be at all surprising. To a bureaucrat, get 20 things right, so what; get one thing wrong, you’re screwed. They don’t want to be the one that lets in the next group of “students” seeking pilot training.

The other thing to note is that it appears that all undergraduate and almost all grad programs are open. This is not a general decree to keep out Iranians.


Eli Rabett 02.15.15 at 7:58 pm

It is not just visas. As everyone has said that is a State Department issue, not UMass. However, once enrolled a student has pretty much unlimited opportunity to enroll or sit in classes and some of those classes may teach things that somebunny at a later date may object to on the basis of the sanctions regime.

Exclusion from the college’s POV is a hell of a lot easier.


bianca steele 02.15.15 at 8:11 pm

If there are issues beyond just the visa, that’s one thing.

If universities and individual professors are exercising discretion to add to the law, that’s another.

If people who are exercising discretion (or who aren’t supposed to be exercising discretion) don’t really understand the law, that’s even worse.

If people who are asked to enforce the law don’t understand it and are educated about it in a way that itself doesn’t make sense, I suspect that would just make their confusion worse.

The similarities between this and telecom companies handing over data seem pretty striking, at least to me. The difference is that here, the question is whether universities have a right to keep information from the public, rather than whether utility companies have a right to keep information from the government.

My own experience is of being told by a fellow employee in another state in the US that they had decided not to ship information on how to use encryption functions to customers even within the US, and couldn’t send me, in-house, the manual page for that function so that we could use it in a product we were going to sell, because “we aren’t allowed to ship that stuff out of state.” So, maybe I’m not that trusting of the process.


bianca steele 02.15.15 at 8:12 pm

s.b. “because we aren’t allowed to ship that stuff out of the country”


Ze Kraggash 02.15.15 at 8:56 pm

“often run by nervous administrators and managers”

Isn’t this a typical and normal MO of any hierarchy? Every manager’s career depends on anticipating and proactively addressing the wishes of those above (anyone can follow orders, you have to do better than that). This also provides plausible deniability to the higher level: damn overzealous underlings!


Kiwanda 02.16.15 at 6:42 pm

Fuzzy Dunlop, #6:

Kiwanda @5 I wonder if any university has ever lost research dollars in this way (b/c of Iranians or people of other nationalities)?

Probably few, mostly because of the extreme caution taken.

NB: I do not condone the US sanctions or the resulting punishment of individuals due to over-cautious universities and companies anxious to keep their funding.


The Temporary Name 02.16.15 at 6:57 pm

SEVIS requirements are already ridiculous enough: Homeland Security knows who’s studying what.


UMass probably didn’t consult its own people regarding the policy. It’s irrelevant.

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