UMass Amherst Reverses Controversial Ban on Iranian Students in Engineering, Sciences

PHOTO: Students on the campus of UMass Amherst, Sept. 17, 2014.Jonathan Wiggs/The Boston Globe via Getty Images
Students on the campus of UMass Amherst, Sept. 17, 2014.

The University of Massachusetts Amherst has overturned a controversial ban that would have prohibited all incoming Iranian students from participating in certain graduate engineering and natural sciences programs.

"This approach reflects the university's longstanding commitment to wide access to educational opportunities," Michael Malone, vice chancellor for research and engagement, said in a statement today. "It is now clear, after further consultation and deliberation, that we can adopt a less restrictive policy."

The reversal comes just days after the school announced the ban to comply with a 2012 federal law -- part of sanctions against Iran to prevent it from acquiring nuclear weapons. The 2012 law denies visas for Iranian students in the U.S. if they want to work in the energy sector, nuclear science, nuclear engineering or related field in Iran.

The concern was that those students would return to Iran and help advance the country's nuclear program. But UMass Amherst's broad prohibition caused an outcry from student groups and advocates.

Jamal Abdi, policy director of the National Iranian American Council, said his group was surprised by how many programs and students the ban would have affected at UMass Amherst.

"The scope is definitely surprising," Abdi said in an interview with ABC News before the ban was overturned. "This is the problem with a university attempting to implement a law that the State Department is in charge of."

Abdi later said his group members "welcome UMass's reversal. We think they've done the right thing."

Shirin Hakim, the former leader of the Persian Students Association at UMass Amherst, said she was overjoyed that the ban had been overturned and that she felt it was the result of a "misunderstanding" on the part of the school administration.

"We always felt welcomed and we're very pleased with the results," said Hakim, adding that she thought "the administration is aware that they mistakenly released a policy that did not align with the support on campus."

Amir Masoumi, a former graduate student who helped form the Iranian Graduate Student Association at UMass Amherst, said students he talked to thought the ban was "discriminatory interpretation of the law."

He said he was still concerned that news of the ban, despite the quick reversal, would deter prospective Iranian applicants. "We hope that this ban and removal of this ban isn't going to affect those applicants," he said.

Abdi said the council knew of only one other school, Virginia Commonwealth University, with a similar ban, but that it was not as expansive as the UMass Amherst ban.

The State Department clarified in a statement that student visas would continue to be decided on a case-by-case basis and "reviewed individually in accordance with the requirements of the U.S. Immigration and Nationality Act, and other relevant laws."

"U.S. law does not prohibit qualified Iranian nationals coming to the United States for education in science and engineering," a State Department official said in a statement to ABC News.

The department noted there has been no recent change in U.S. policy or guidance regarding Iranian student visas.