What about an international education?

The 2012 US federal law denying visas to Iranian students comes into conflict with the educational mission of the US State Department. 

Joanna E. Springer
10 March 2015
Iranian hostage crisis protest,Washington D.C.,1979.

Iranian hostage crisis protest,Washington D.C.,1979. Marion S.Trikosko/Wikicommons. Some rights reserved.Economic sanctions targeting Iran’s nuclear program are intervening increasingly in daily interactions between Iranian expatriates and their communities in countries across Europe, but most notably in the US. Singling out individuals for discrimination on the basis of ethnic identity seems to be an unfortunate consequence of exclusionary sanctions laws. In an ironic twist, this effect is seen in universities despite the importance traditionally placed on international exchange among students for the long-term goal of improved foreign relations.

A 2012 US federal law that denies visas to Iranian students intending to work in the field of energy in their home country garnered little media coverage when it was enacted. However, it was recently the alleged reason the University of Massachusetts-Amherst (UMass) issued an admissions ban on Iranian students in several engineering, computer science and chemistry-related fields. Despite the fact that UMass is committed to open access to education for all eligible applicants, the administration issued the ban following an incident where an Iranian student was unable to continue in the program because of being denied re-entry to the US.

Two Iranian student associations at UMass organized strong faculty support and drew national media attention to the policy, claiming it was “arbitrary and discriminatory”. Six days later, the Chancellor of UMass, Kumble Subbaswamy, issued an official apology, admitting that the ban represented “giant steps backward” given that the university had “never restricted admissions”. The UMass administration settled on a compromise, requiring individualized study plans for Iranian engineering students. Critics insist that this is not only discriminatory, but also unnecessary; international law expert, Dr. Reza Nasri argues that sanction laws clash with human rights law, enshrined in the constitutions of countries like the US.

Just since 2012, there have been other instances of discriminating against Iranians on the basis of sanctions laws, in retail stores, banks and public services. Recently at least two other US universities have more quietly joined what appears to be a growing trend to take on implementing the 2012 law that is the sole responsibility of the Departments of State and Homeland Security. According to Nasri, sanction laws are especially prone to misapplication; no country seems to be immune as individuals of Iranian background or citizenship face discrimination in universities and also banks across Europe, Australia and Canada.

The 2012 US federal law comes into conflict with the educational mission of the US State Department, which is to promote international educational exchange. The department’s most notable initiative is the Fulbright scholar program, established in the belief that it is impossible to “achieve lasting peace without greater understanding between nations—and that international educational exchange formed the strongest basis for fostering such understanding.”

Students from countries with whom the US government has poor relations, such as Iran, have a particularly important role to play. Given that many young Americans lack the opportunity to travel abroad, interacting with international students can be a valuable opportunity to gain exposure to other cultures, languages and traditions. When this type of exchange is inhibited, stereotypes and misconceptions can flourish.

According to Mohsen Jalali, student organizer and PhD candidate in political science at UMass, many students directly affected by the policy hesitated to speak to the press “because they were in the College of Engineering and thought that their admission may be affected.” Without the presence of established student groups and those like Jalali who were not immediately under threat, the policy might have remained in place, setting a negative precedent for Iranian students across the country. “It creates more hatred,” he cautioned, pointing to an article titled, “Bomb-makers of tomorrow gain access to US-funded graduate education”.

The UMass administration’s embarrassing and harmful misstep reveals just how problematic sanctions can be, especially when they restrict free access to knowledge and cultural exchange on university campuses. In such a political climate, it is crucial for administrators to uphold their institutions’ values by taking a stand against repressive and counterproductive laws.

Full disclosure: The author is a former UMass-Amherst graduate student and employee, and has friends among current Persian UMass students and alumni.

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