UMass to Iranians: Go Away!

On February 6th, the University of Massachusetts at Amherst released a statement of a policy change headlined “UMass Amherst Procedures on Admission of Iranian Students.” It ends with this:

We recognize that these decisions create difficulties for our students from Iran and regard this as unfortunate. Furthermore, the exclusion of a class of students from admission directly conflicts with our institutional values and principles. However, we must to adhere to the law and hence have instituted this policy to ensure that we are in compliance. [emphasis mine.]

Seventy miles east of Amherst is the town of Concord, where Henry David Thoreau penned a few words on how one should react to government “requests” that we abrogate our values:

I think that we should be men first, and subjects afterward. It is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law, so much as for the right. The only obligation which I have a right to assume is to do at any time what I think right. It is truly enough said that a corporation has no conscience; but a corporation of conscientious men is a corporation with a conscience. Law never made men a whit more just; and, by means of their respect for it, even the well-disposed are daily made the agents of injustice. A common and natural result of an undue respect for law is, that you may see a file of soldiers, colonel, captain, corporal, privates, powder-monkeys, and all, marching in admirable order over hill and dale to the wars, against their wills, ay, against their common sense and consciences, which makes it very steep marching indeed, and produces a palpitation of the heart.

There’s not much more I want to say about what UMass has done, so early, except to admit that I am still trying to clear my thoughts, wondering if I haven’t been fooled by The Onion. I chanced on a story on this soon after I awoke, and am still trying to process it. The problems with this decision are myriad. Making a decision to conform to a law when no one has determined that the law is pertinent to the situation… imagining that programs might be compromised by the loss of a few students… keeping students out for their own good (“sanctions pose a significant challenge to our ability to provide a full program of education and research for Iranian students in certain disciplines and programs”)….

UMass is reminding me of Tennyson’s vision of the Light Brigade:

Was there a man dismay’d?
Not tho’ the soldier knew
Someone had blunder’d:
Theirs not to make reply,
Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do and die

The decision makers at UMass might want to think, instead, of the words of that Amherst resident Emily Dickinson:

We never know we go, — when we are going
We jest and shut the door;
Fate following behind us bolts it,
And we accost no more.

All of us need to act as honestly and ethically in the present, for we don’t know what doors the future might shut on us. We shut doors on Iranians now. Tomorrow, who might shut them on us?


Computer Science will admit and welcomes applicants to our program. Signed, Graduate Admissions Chair (me).

3 thoughts on “UMass to Iranians: Go Away!

  1. I suspect that UMass is not the only institution that is initiating this policy, in a seemingly preemptive manner, in response to the federal law. Every time we think that our university administration has suddenly decided to do something ridiculous, as if the idea came out of nowhere, it turns out that administrators elsewhere in our state or in neighboring states have started doing essentially the same thing.

    That does not mean that one cannot expect or at least hope that some university president somewhere will stand up and at least make the case that the law is unnecessarily draconian and ethically problematic, especially given the mission and values of his or her institution. But, given how income inequality has extended into higher education, you might be more likely to inspire some sort of response along those lines if you quoted Andrew Carnegie or some ed-tech billionaire, rather than Thoreau.

    That said, it is fairly easy to understand the political reasons for restrictions on Iranian students studying technologies related to nuclear energy. We have been trying to forestall Iran’s development of nuclear weapons, and whether or not educating students in any related field would actually conflict with our diplomatic and other efforts in that regard–or even whether someone personally agrees or disagrees with that political aim in itself–the revelation that we were allowing Iranian students to study in fields related to nuclear energy would be a public-relations fiasco for the Obama administration.

    But the restrictions on students studying technologies related to oil and gas seem at least as much economically as politically driven. And before someone jumps to point to the trade sanctions on Iran and the fact that that nation’s major export is oil, let me point out what should be equally obvious: there is no working embargo on Iranian oil because once any oil enters the global marketplace, it doesn’t matter who is or isn’t buying it. U.S. fracking production has had much more impact on Iranian oil revenues than any embargo has had on those revenues and on the Iranian economy more broadly.

    In any case, unless European universities, and the major universities in Australia, Canada, Japan, China, India, and elsewhere are placing the same restrictions on Iranian students, this is another embargo that will have more impact on perception than on reality.

    • Agreed. As this issue has been “trending” today, I’m wondering what UMass Amherst’s response will be. I suspect the school will pull back, hunkering down until any furor blows over and, in concert with other schools, do this anyway.

      I can respect not wanting to educate your “enemies” in ways of hurting you, but I wonder if, in cases like this, we do more to hurt ourselves.

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