Analysis & Opinions - Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School

Don't Ban Students Based on Nationality: What Can We Learn from Europe?

| March 2, 2015

The decision of the University of Massachusetts Amherst to categorically ban Iranians was not only gross discrimination, but also a violation of academic freedom. A similar policy was adopted in the Netherlands a few years ago and later rebuked by the Dutch Supreme Court. Universities must remain open to people from all races, religions, and nationalities.

On February 6, 2015, UMass Amherst announced it would ban Iranians from certain fields of science and engineering, in order to ensure compliance with federal law. Ironically, it was the State Department that corrected UMass's discriminatory policy by clarifying that the federal law does not require such a sweeping ban.

The policy at UMass has been reversed and the announcement has been removed from their website. But instead of completely lifting the ban, "a less restrictive policy" will be adopted, said Michael Malone, the University's vice chancellor for research and engagement. The new policy boils down to developing individual study programs that require an "extra bit of planning" and coordination (Boston Globe, February 18, 2015). That creates, however, serious reason for concern. In the hypothetical situation that two students have the same credentials and qualifications, it would seem that the one requiring less administrative work will be chosen. The reality is that this restrictive policy could affect the future of many Iranian applicants at UMass Amherst, and far beyond.

The policy of UMass Amherst is also disconcerting from the perspective of an academic institution. The policy could damage the reputation of the University. For one thing, UMass Amherst seems to be the first U.S. university in the post–World War II era that has decided to ban students based on their nationality. For another, the ban goes against academic freedom. In 1942, Robert Merton, a Columbia University sociologist, introduced several norms for the scientific practice, including universalism. He wrote: "All scientists can contribute to science regardless of race, nationality, culture, or gender." This and other Mertonian norms are still very much valid in the scientific practice. Banning a student based on his or her nationality goes against the spirit of science. And when a school is required to select students on grounds other than merits, qualifications, and credentials, it is a clear violation of the school's academic freedom.

A similar situation happened in the Netherlands in 2008 when the Dutch government decided to ban Iranian students from certain fields of science and engineering. The justification provided then was comparable to the current situation at UMass, namely compliance with sanctions on Iran, in this case UN Resolution 1737. The situation has led to massive criticism from the academic world and, eventually, to a legal process case. I was one of the plaintiffs in that process. The Dutch Supreme Court rebuked this policy because there was "no objective and reasonable justification" for targeting all Iranians and Iranians only. The policy, the Court said, was a violation of article 26 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights which protects against discrimination on any ground such as race political opinion or birth. The court ruled that there were better and more efficient ways for complying with the UN resolution, such as individual screenings of everybody who will be in touch with sensitive information or a dual use fields of study.

Indeed, the verdict of the Dutch court is by no means a legal precedent for the United States. And UN Resolution 1737 and U.S. federal law do not target exactly the same issues. Yet, the key rationale of both sanctions seems to greatly overlap. And the moral foundation of the Dutch verdict is very much applicable here, too.

It is peculiar that UMass Amherst introduced the ban as a response to the federal sanctions from 2012; even the State Department seems to have been surprised about this. It seems that no other U.S. university has introduced such categorical bans as an interpretation of the 2012 sanctions and this underlines the fact that this is most likely a redundant and unnecessary measure. As the State Department has said, the decision whether to admit someone is a decision that the State Department takes during an individual evaluation of every single visa application. The only sensible option for UMass Amherst seems to be to completely lift the ban, including the less restrictive version of it.


Statements and views expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author and do not imply endorsement by Harvard University, the Harvard Kennedy School, or the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Taebi, Behnam. "Don't Ban Students Based on Nationality: What Can We Learn from Europe?" Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School, March 2, 2015.

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