Washington, DC – In response to outreach from the National Iranian American Council, one more university is taking steps to ensure that its enforcement of sanctions and other restrictions against Iran do not unduly discriminate against Iranian students.
Following up on a successful campaign to help press the University of Massachusetts Amherst (UMass-Amherst) to reverse an exclusionary policy towards students of Iranian descent, NIAC contacted Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) regarding a policy that appeared to block Iranians from certain programs. VCU has responded and demonstrated that it is taking action to correct the issue.
NIAC wrote to VCU President Michael Rao to express concern with language on VCU’s Graduate Admissions webpage stating that the university barred Iranian citizens from admission “in the graduate fields of mechanical and nuclear engineering or in programs that have nuclear content.” NIAC’s letter questioned whether the adoption of this policy was based on a flawed understanding of relevant U.S. law and urged VCU to overturn the unnecessarily discriminatory policy. NIAC urged that the issue be examined and offered its support in addressing the policy.
VCU’s President Rao responded to NIAC’s letter, indicating that the university would work to resolve the issue. President Rao wrote that the school decided to remove policy language suggesting it would deny Iranian citizens entry into certain graduate programs and would now link directly to the State Department’s visa information homepage. Moreover, President Rao suggested that the university is working with outside legal counsel “to develop appropriate guidance for [VCU] so that the opportunities for students from countries under State Department restrictions are maximized to the fullest extent.” President Rao also emphasized that VCU has “many valued and successful Iranian students…, including many in [VCU’s] School of Engineering.”
Under current law, persons from Iran on a student visa are authorized “to carry out in the United States those activities for which such a visa has been granted by the U.S. State Department…” However, a sanctions bill passed in 2012 requires the State Department to deny student visas to an Iranians pursuing studies for a “career in the energy sector of Iran or in nuclear science or nuclear engineering or a related field in Iran.” The provision has been a major source of confusion for universities, some of whom have unnecessarily read this provision as an obligation imposed upon the schools themselves and have thus restricted their educational offerings to Iranian students. NIAC will continue to provide clarification as to the applicable law to these schools, but issues like this are likely to arise until such time as sanctions on Iran are lifted.
Nonetheless, VCU’s decision is testament to the tremendous work of all groups, including students on campus at UMass-Amherst who successfully fought back against the discriminatory policy there. The outcry over UMass Amherst’s decision to bar Iranian citizens from certain programs had the effect of warning off other universities from adopting similar policies and certainly played a significant role in VCU’s decision to resolve concerns about its own policy. The episode is further evidence of the enormous value of Iranian Americans engaging in civic life and playing a role in shaping the policies that affect them. NIAC will continue to follow-up with and assist VCU in narrowly tailoring its policies regarding non-U.S. Iranian citizens to meet the demands of relevant U.S. law.