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?