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UMass’s preemptive strike on Iranian education

The row over a ban on Iranians studying sanctions-related engineering and science harks back to the heyday of McCarthyism

It has by now become a common occurrence - you might even say a cliché - to mistake mainstream press items for content from the satirical outlet The Onion.

Yet another contender for such confusion surfaced earlier this month in the form of headlines regarding a certain policy shift at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Take NBC News’ version, which appeared on 18 February: “UMass Bans Iranian Nationals From Science Classes.”

The week before, New York-based political science professor and author Corey Robin broke the story of the ban, which had been announced as follows on the school’s website:

“Because we must ensure compliance with applicable laws and regulations, the University has determined that it will no longer admit Iranian national students to specific programs in the College of Engineering (i.e., Chemical Engineering, Electrical & Computer Engineering, Mechanical & Industrial Engineering) and in the College of Natural Sciences (i.e., Physics, Chemistry, Microbiology, and Polymer Science & Engineering) effective February 1, 2015.”

This would have been music to the ears of the late Italian Islamophobe Oriana Fallaci, who in the post-9/11 era lambasted American institutions of higher learning for allowing persons by the name of Mustafa and Mohamed to study chemistry and biology despite the threat of bacteriological warfare.

The “applicable laws and regulations” that concerned the UMass authorities have to do with US sanctions against Iran and the 2012 Iran Threat Reduction and Syria Human Rights Act. One section of the act requires the US State and Homeland Security Departments to thwart attempts by “any alien who is a citizen of Iran” to pursue coursework in the US that might “prepare [said] alien for a career in the energy sector of Iran or in nuclear science or nuclear engineering or a related field.”

After all, any Iranian aspiring to a “career in the energy sector” must have bomb-making on the mind.

But UMass propelled the matter to a new level of absurdity with its singular preemptive strike on a whole swathe of Iranian educational options - a move that even “appeared to catch the US State Department by surprise,” as the Boston Globe noted.

A department official stressed to NBC News that “US law does not prohibit qualified Iranian nationals coming to the United States for education in science and engineering” and that the government would “reach out to UMass Amherst to discuss this specific decision.”

In making the US government look reasonable, then, UMass has achieved at least one impressive feat.

Education under surveillance

Robin’s blog coverage of the showdown between UMass and academic freedom - in which the university also insisted that current Iranian students “certify their compliance” in writing with whatever discriminatory policies were deemed necessary by the sanctions regime - generated national media attention.

There was plenty for the media to comment on, of course, given that the school itself acknowledged from the outset that “the exclusion of a class of students from admission directly conflicts with our institutional values and principles.” UMass’s vice-chancellor for research and engagement Mike Malone lamented: “We don’t like it. We’d rather have free access, but we consulted with the law and with outside counsel on this.”

Thankfully, Malone was soon relieved of his sob story when further “consultation with the State Department and outside counsel” - not to mention the outcry from student and other organisations - resulted in a revision of the previous blanket prohibition.

Although various news outlets reported that UMass had “reversed” its policy, reality reveals few reasons for such optimism. “Individualised study plans” will now be devised for Iranian graduate students entering fields judged to be problematic; the process will be coordinated with the State Department to prevent sanctions violations.

While the new model of education-under-extreme-surveillance may seem less like collective punishment to the naked eye, the continuing priority placed on anti-Iranian discrimination hasn’t gone unnoticed by those on its receiving end. The Boston Globe quotes UMass Amherst graduate student Nariman Mostafavi on the ironies of his academic situation:

“I got banned from my education in Iran because I raised my voice against what happened in my country. I was a leader of a pro-democracy secular group that was advocating for academic freedoms in the universities and when I moved to the United States, especially UMass Amherst, I never imagined anything like this.”

And the ironies don’t stop there. Robin reminds us of the “shitshow” that ensued when the American Studies Association voted for an academic boycott of Israel - a move targeting institutions that help sustain systems of occupation and apartheid. Given Israel’s accepted position as BFF of the US, the proposal unleashed hysteria among impromptu champions of selective academic freedom (Iranians need not apply.)

This is the same Israel, of course, that maintains its own expansive nuclear arsenal in violation of international law but is not subject to any of the punitive measures reserved for the Islamic Republic and its alleged nuclear fantasies.

Meanwhile, if we want to go around imposing nationality-based academic restrictions in the ostensible interest of safeguarding the planet and its life forms, perhaps America’s track record of nuclear devastation should be taken into account.

National profiling and the ‘advice industry’

So why the sudden national profiling initiative by UMass, particularly when only a smattering of the other bazillion universities in the US have pursued similar policies? According to the online magazine Inside Higher Ed, Virginia Commonwealth University and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute both advertise difficulties in admitting Iranian citizens to certain programmes. Granted, many other schools presumably engage in subtler profiling tactics.

Robin suggests that what the UMass drama might boil down to is a problematic “freelance ‘advice industry’ that serves as the go-between [for] the government and the academy”. Via correspondence with one industry representative - a policy advisor at Ferrari and Associates, a law firm focused on sanctions policy - he learned that this company has informally advised US universities on compliance with sanctions.

To Robin’s question of whether the ban initially enacted by UMass was “indeed truly necessitated by the sanctions programme or not,” the advisor responded: “The answer is probably.” Someone alert the State Department.

Following this chat and UMass’s repeated references to the vital role played by “outside counsel” in shaping university decisions, Robin - although stressing that he didn’t “want to over-read the UMass story” - reviewed a bit of relevant history from the McCarthy era.

Anxious not to run afoul of government regulations, the administrators of academic and other institutions would seek the advice of outside parties, frequently lawyers:

“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’.”

It was this arrangement, writes Robin, that “radiated [state] power far beyond what it was capable of [and] made the whole system of repression as widespread as it was.”

In sum, it looks like we’ve got some sturdy precedents to work with. And there’s no time like the present to set some more. For starters, the UMass Office of Equal Opportunity & Diversity could be converted into a nuclear bunker.

The Boston Globe article on the supposed “revers[al]” of the admissions ban quotes Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council, on the “soft power” benefits to the US of an influx of Iranian students: “It’s much more difficult to vilify the United States when you actually know the United States.”

Except, of course, when it’s easier.

- Belen Fernandez is the author of The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work, published by Verso. She is a contributing editor at Jacobin magazine.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo: University of Massachusetts at Amherst, picture taken from the W.E.B. Dubois Library (Wikipedia)

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