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UMass Amherst Reverses Controversial Policy On Iranian Students

02/18/2015 03:57 pm ET | Updated Feb 18, 2015

The University of Massachusetts Amherst is backing down from a controversial policy that would block Iranian citizens from certain engineering and science programs, the school announced Wednesday.

The flagship university of the UMass system said that it will now develop "individualized study plans" for Iranian students that are "based on a student's projected coursework and research." The school's new approach reverses a policy first made public last week that would have barred Iranian citizens from enrolling in a wide range of engineering and science courses. The university had claimed that policy was needed to comply with a 2012 federal law, which effectively bans Iranians from studying in the U.S. for a career in the energy sector or nuclear science or engineering fields in Iran.

UMass said it changed its policy after consulting with outside counsel and the State Department.

"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. "We have always believed that excluding students from admission conflicts with our institutional values and principles. It is now clear, after further consultation and deliberation, that we can adopt a less restrictive policy."

Student groups had already organized a meeting for Wednesday evening to discuss ways to protest the admissions ban, which had outraged students on campus as well as Iranian American advocates outside the university community. The faculty senate had also planned, as of Tuesday evening, to hold an emergency meeting on the issue later this week.

Despite the university's change of course, some students remain skeptical about those individualized study plans.

"They still haven't offered a reasoning behind why they think federal policy requires them to make any changes to curriculum at all," said Michael Havlin, a UMass graduate student who helped draft student group statements over the weekend criticizing the university's policy. "I hope that this announcement wasn't simply a backdoor way for them to get media coverage off their backs while they continue to effectively discriminate by altering each student's curriculum in an extreme way."

Arman Pouraghily, a UMass Ph.D. candidate also involved in drafting the statements, said those who are critical of the policy will likely still coordinate efforts to "make sure there are not any remaining consequences."

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