Why solve a problem with a scalpel when there is a sledgehammer nearby? That is the question that UMass Amherst administrators must have asked themselves when they decided to ban all Iranian students from their graduate-level science and engineering programs. The problem, of course, that had the administrators in a tizzy was the fear that the university might engage in deemed exports of export-controlled technology to those Iranian students.

It seems, however, that the UMass administrators perhaps need themselves a little education in export law. For starters, the Export Administration Regulations (“EAR”) make clear in section 734.9 that information “released by instruction in catalog courses and associated teaching laboratories of academic institutions” is not subject to the EAR and that, therefore, teaching this information to Iranians (or any other foreign student) is not a violation of the EAR.

Perhaps the administrators are afraid that school labs might have export-controlled equipment and that Iranians, if they have access to these machines, might be considered to have received export-controlled technology. That may be a legitimate concern, but it is not one that is restricted to Iranians. To solve this problem, UMass would have to boot all foreign students.

Nor is there any merit in the argument, apparently made by a “policy analyst” at a small DC firm cited in the linked article, that this result is mandated by section 501 of the Iran Threat Reduction and Syria Human Rights Act. That section prohibits the State Department from issuing visas to an Iranian to attend a U.S. university “to prepare … for a career in the energy sector of Iran or in nuclear science or nuclear engineering or a related field in Iran.” To begin with, this section imposes on obligation only on the State Department and not on any university in regard to its relation with a student once such a visa was granted. Nor does the prohibition extend to all fields in science and engineering, unless, somehow, a graduate degree in biology prepares one to work in the energy or nuclear field.

Beyond that, the University runs the risk of violating the anti-discrimination provisions of the Immigration and Nationality Act. Those provisions prohibit discrimination in employment against a legally-admitted foreign national based on his or her national origin. Since graduate students normally receive employment from their universities, a total ban on Iranian graduate students could very likely be seen as a violation of those prohibitions.

UPDATE: An email from the DC firm discussed in this post indicates that their policy analyst did not state in the interview cited in the linked article that section 501 of the Iran Threat Reduction and Syria Human Rights act mandated the position taken by UMass Amherst.  The email goes on to state that the law firm also believes, as I do, that the UMass Amherst policy is overbroad.

SECOND UPDATE:  Do you think maybe the folks at UMass Amherst read this post?  Probably not, but for whatever reason they’ve already reversed their policy banning Iranian graduate students in science and engineering.