Did you know that Iranian students can't attend some U.S. colleges?

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The University of Massachusetts Amherst is under scrutiny for implementing—and then revoking—a controversial policy banning some Iranian students that is unparalleled at any other school in the country.

The UMass policy change stemmed from a 2012 federal law that requires the State Department to deny visas to Iranian students who want to study nuclear science or engineering at American universities. Ultimately, it falls to the government, specifically the State Department and the Department of Homeland Security, to enforce the law, not individual colleges—which makes the timing of the UMass ban interesting.

A university spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Leila Austin, executive director of the Public Affairs Alliance of Iranian Americans, said the party line from the school has been that the policy change was the result of an inquiry from a student. The nature of that inquiry remains unknown.


UMass has said it will work with Iranian students in science and engineering programs to develop individualized study plans.

"Now that it's been reversed," Austin said, "I doubt other universities will be able to follow suit [with bans on Iranian students] because they're being watched."

In Rare Company

UMass isn't the first school to grapple with the idea of turning away Iranian students.


People tracking such bans, including Austin and Jamal Abdi, policy director for the National Iranian American Council, say they know of two other schools in the U.S. with similar, although somewhat less severe, policies currently in place: Virginia Commonwealth University and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York.

VCU has the following statement on their graduate admissions page:

Please note: United States government export controls have changed with respect to Iranian citizen [sic] pursuing graduate studies in certain fields. 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.


Anne Buckley, a spokeswoman for the university, told Fusion in an email, "We are certainly open to reviewing this matter pending further clarification from the federal government."

Rensselaer requires prospective Iranian students to contact its admissions office before they submit an application. A spokeswoman emailed, "[A]t this time, we do not have any plans to reconsider our policy."


Most colleges have no formal policies in place.

During the 2013-14 academic year, 10,194 Iranian students studied in the U.S., a 17 percent increase from the previous year. Most study some form of engineering, according to the Institute of International Education, which tracks study abroad figures.


Historical Context

A spokeswoman for IIE told Fusion many current Iranian students have parents who studied in the U.S. before the revolution. In the mid-1970s, Iran was the top sender of students to the United States, according to IIE.


Following the Iranian Revolution in 1979, which thrust the U.S. into a tumultuous relationship with the newly Islamic republic, bans were debated and instituted at colleges and in statehouses around the country.

In January 1980, the South Carolina House approved a bill that directed the boards of the state's colleges, universities, and technical schools to refuse admittance to Iranian students. The board of Greenville Technical College voted to ban Iranians from enrolling the semester following the hostage crisis.


New Mexico and Louisiana stopped enrolling Iranian students in the spring of 1980, and Mississippi doubled tuition for Iranians in a move that prompted the Justice Department to join a class action lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union.

The bans, which like the UMass ban drew ire from Iranian students, were largely found unconstitutional and fell by the wayside. But according to Immigrants in American History by Elliott Robert Barkan, between November 1979 and April 1980, 2,204 Iranian students left the United States.


New Tension, New Restrictions

On a global level, the UMass policy isn't entirely novel.

The Netherlands instituted a ban in 2008, which was overturned in 2012, and RMIT University in Australia and the Czech Technical University in the Czech Republic in 2013 said they were forced to reject Iranian students because of government and U.N. Security Council sanctions. Last year, Iran criticized Norway for denying residency to new Iranian students.


Additionally, U.S. schools that operate programs abroad limit the courses Iranian students can take because of government restrictions. Northeastern University's general counsel issued guidance in 2012 that said undergraduates would be limited to "introductory" courses in math, science, and engineering, for example. And U.S. schools that operate in other countries and want to award graduate degrees need a license to recruit students in  most cases.

Open Arms and Doors

Ultimately, the regulations are complex and schools are trying to be careful not to unwittingly violate any policies. Iranian students and advocates hope that American universities will remember that Iranian students "are not the enemy," as one Twitter user put it, and will adopt a more nuanced approach.



"The State Department is the right place to go for clarification on U.S. government regulations as they apply to international students," Dr. Allan Goodman, President of the Institute of International Education said in a statement. "America is known around the world for having the most open academic doors; even in the most difficult situations we make it possible to study in the U.S. That is why the number of Iranian students in America has grown significantly in recent years and I expect it will continue to do so."


Kevin Joyce contributed reporting

Emily DeRuy is a Washington, D.C.-based associate editor, covering education, reproductive rights, and inequality. A San Francisco native, she enjoys Giants baseball and misses Philz terribly.

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