State Department Expresses Surprise Over UMass policy

My sister Melissa just sent me a piece from today’s Boston Globe on the UMass Iranian student situation. The big blockbuster in the piece is this:

The college’s new policy, which appears to be rare if not unique among US universities, appeared to catch the US State Department by surprise

The State Department had no idea that this policy was in the offing, and more important, seems to believe or suggest that the policy may be unnecessary.

A US State Department official said that the department was aware of news reports about the UMass decision but that there had been no changes in federal policy regarding Iranian students and he could not say why UMass would change its policy. The department will contact UMass to discuss the decision and will answer any questions from other academic institutions about the law, the official said.

“All visa applications are reviewed individually in accordance with the requirements of the US Immigration and Nationality Act and other relevant laws that establish detailed standards for determining eligibility for visas and admission to the United States,” the official, who declined to be quoted by name, said in an e-mail.

US law does not prohibit qualified Iranian nationals coming to the United States for education in science and engineering,” the official continued. “Each application is reviewed on a case-by-case basis.”

Got that? It is not US law that prohibits Iranian nationals from applying and enrolling in UMass’s engineering and natural sciences graduate programs; it is UMass itself that is doing that.

In one graf, the UMass Vice Chancellor for Research and Engagement, Mike Malone, claims that the policy was developed in consultation with faculty and students (though every student and faculty member I’ve talked to at UMass claimed they only learned of the policy from my blog).

But in a later graf Malone gives a different story:

Malone said that after discussing the issue with outside legal counsel and with faculty at other institutions, administrators believe UMass is in the mainstream of American institutions in having such a policy, though it is rare to publish it.

The moment this story broke and I began talking with sanctions experts, one of whom works for a law firm that specializes in these questions (see update here), I got nervous. Forgive me a historical tangent.

Back during the McCarthy years, institutions like UMass—and outside academe as well; in Hollywood and other parts of the culture industry; and throughout the economy as a whole—were run by nervous administrators and managers and CEOs who wanted to be in compliance with the government. I’m not talking about the true believer anticommunists; just run of the mill, apolitical or even liberal, apparatchiks whose first duty, they felt, was to their job and their institution.

Uncertain about the law and the rules, fearful that if they broke them their institutions would suffer, these administrators turned to outside consultants—often, lawyers—for “advice.” 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.”

The combination of this advice industry and nervous administrators was lethal: through some elaborate dance of advice and consent, repressive policies were propounded. Not by force, not by threat, but voluntarily, consensually. It wasn’t simply the state that was the problem; it was the relay system of coercion that private actors in civil society set up, that radiated that power far beyond what it was capable of, that made the whole system of repression as widespread as it was. This, incidentally, was precisely the kind of society Hobbes envisioned in Leviathan: not simply an all-powerful singleton sovereign, but an army of preachers and teachers, working in churches and—wait for it: universities—who would extend the power of the sovereign far beyond what it could muster.

I don’t want to over-read the UMass story. But that mention of seeking “outside legal counsel” and my conversation yesterday with one representative—perfectly well meaning and well intentioned, from what I can gather—of that advice industry makes me worried that the policy at UMass, and other institutions as well, is being driven by a similar dynamic. Particularly when you throw in the State Department’s surprise and clear statement that this policy is not actually required by US government policy.

In other news, after yesterday’s announcement on my blog that UMass had taken down the policy from its website, it now seems to be back up.


  1. jaysentrueblood February 14, 2015 at 9:21 am | #

    In governance, the witch hunter often becomes the very witch they hunt. Take McCarthyism. His followers, and those who swept through America to “destroy Communism” spread a far worse legacy. Now, those who would destroy this country by their attempts to stem “the Muslim tide” have become far worse than those they seek to keep out of the country. Hate, in any form, whether legislative or in outdated views, is the enemy of all. It destroys all in its path, and consumes all who harbor it. As FDR said so well, “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.”

  2. Voltarine DeCleyre February 14, 2015 at 9:46 am | #

    It’s even more impressive when the “experts” can preach and minister from the Church of St. Television. Only two-and-a-half years ago did Glenn Greenwald consider the “sham ‘terrorism expert’ industry.”

  3. Paul Sawyer February 14, 2015 at 10:14 am | #

    This is a powerful statement–thanks for being so alert on this issue. I don’t believe you’re overreading; you aren’t predicting the return of repression on the McCarthyite scale based on this incident alone, you’re noticing something very important about the mechanisms of repression in a society like ours. (Cp. use of pepper spray at University of Cal-Davis, apparently in keeping with guidelines approved by a top university officer.) We all need to recognize the role of the “decent” folks (that is, those who aren’t rabid haters, who aren’t ideologues), who work to produce the echo-effect you mention through such apparent motivations as prudence and anxiety. My university, Cornell, is in a partnership with Technion, the Israeli firm that researches new weaponry for the IDF among other functions, and stands to reap hundreds of millions of dollars over the long haul from the “technical campus” in NYC; college administrators who signed on did so quickly and secretly in order not to lose the contract. They are decent people in many ways.

  4. Joanna Bujes February 14, 2015 at 1:30 pm | #

    In Romania they have a proverb that covers this : “The bent head is not cut by the sword.” Wisdom for the ages.

  5. Tara February 14, 2015 at 3:08 pm | #

    Thanks for your taking this story up, Corey!

  6. BillR February 14, 2015 at 4:12 pm | #

    Someone who would not have been able to come to a US university for graduate work because she went to college in Iran:

  7. BillR February 14, 2015 at 4:18 pm | #

    oops, here’s the right link:

  8. Russell Scott Day February 14, 2015 at 4:32 pm | #

    Radical Saudi nationals came to the US for pilot training with the express aim of using civilian aircraft as bombs. There are Iranians, and there are Iranians, just as there are Saudis, and then there are Saudis. Autocracies and Theocracies offer simplistic blanket laws, rules and regulations that are not to be deviated from. In war times there is an erosion of all rights for all and we are in a state of permanent war. Some lust for finality and a righteous blast burned shadow left as evidence of their being. A life of confusion and grief is too much for the simpletons. Universities are where the nuanced approach is to be taught and upheld, and those who want to dispense with the bother of thinking case by case, like all the CSA USA representatives and Governors must be identified and vilified by the University leadership who must categorically endorse case by case admissions, with an eye towards assets and threats. Why the FBI ignored the pilot trainers who called the FBI to question the goals of monied students unconcerned with landing, is indicative of individual failures, and it is the duty of the University to educate individuals beyond autocracy.

  9. xenon2 February 14, 2015 at 5:46 pm | #

    @BillR hurray for finding that video!

  10. BillR February 14, 2015 at 8:47 pm | #

    The demonization of Iran is so thorough that genocidal fantasies of messianic Zionists about turning Iran into a “nuclear wasteland” usually don’t raise any eyebrows but sometimes someone does object to the routine dose of “Two minutes of Hate” that Israelis like to ladle out as a matter of course (Netenyahu will be coming to Capitol Hill next month to belt out another sermon on the Persian threat to Western Civilization):

    No person into whose mind had entered the idea that an Iranian may be a human being–and that there are millions of innocent Iranians–could have generated with such casual facility the image of Iran as a “nuclear wasteland.” Yet this was the image of Iran that the Israeli Benny Morris decided to conjure up for American readers in the New York Times.

    In the Haaretz interview of January 5, 2004, the following exchange occurred between the interviewer Ari Shavit and Benny Morris:

    “Would you describe yourself as an apocalyptic person?”

    “The whole Zionist project is apocalyptic. It exists within hostile surroundings and in a certain sense its existence is unreasonable. It wasn’t reasonable for it to succeed in 1881 and it wasn’t reasonable for it to succeed in 1948 and it’s not reasonable that it will succeed now. Nevertheless, it has come this far. In a certain way it is miraculous. I live the events of 1948, and 1948 projects itself on what could happen here. Yes, I think of Armageddon. It’s possible. Within the next 20 years there could be an atomic war here.”

    This apocalyptic danger Morris may conceive himself to have put off a few more years by writing an editorial on behalf of Israel’s coming attack. But whether the attack on Iran comes sooner or later, whether it is executed by Israel or the U.S. or both, and whether carried out with conventional or nuclear weapons, Morris has no doubt of one thing. It will have served the “apocalyptic” vision of the “whole Zionist project,” and it will coincide with the highest values of humanity properly defined.

    The only question is whether American Congresspersons will break their own record of standing ovations for a Prime Minister of Israel (29 last time he addressed the august chamber).

  11. Ed February 15, 2015 at 3:40 pm | #

    This kind of fascist paranoia is nothing new for UMass — the place truly became a fascist gulag after the Virginia Tech shooting when paranoid administrators established a witch hunt commission (ACT) which tries students in absentia on fears that they may become the “next Virginia Tech shooter.” When you are that paranoid, it isn’t a large leap to then fear that any Iranian is going to learn to build a nuke or something.

    Sadly, none of this surprises me.

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