Why Rejecting Students Based on Nationality Is a Bad Idea for Universities and for the U.S.

03/13/2015 05:02 pm ET | Updated May 13, 2015

The University of Massachusetts at Amherst recently tied itself in knots in an attempt to comply with U.S. sanctions against Iran. The university first announced it would categorically ban Iranian graduate students from certain fields of science and engineering and then reversed itself with a "less restrictive" if more opaque policy of creating individualized study programs for Iranian students. Ironically, it was the State Department that suggested the reversal by clarifying that the federal law does not require such a sweeping ban.

I had a special interest in the UMass case. A similar situation unfolded in the Netherlands in 2008, when the Dutch government decided to ban Iranian students and scholars from certain fields of science and engineering. The justification for the ban was comparable to the current situation at UMass, namely compliance with international sanctions on Iran. The situation led to massive criticism from the academic world and, eventually, to a legal process case. I was one of the plaintiffs in the case.

The Dutch Supreme Court rebuked the university's policy because the policy made an "unnecessary and unjustified distinction between Iranians and non-Iranians." The policy, the Court said, was a violation 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 effective ways of complying with the UN resolution, such as individual screenings of any student studying technology with both civilian and military uses. Similarly, the State Department has emphasized that each visa application to enter the United States for a specified program of study will be reviewed on a case-by-case basis. Additional bans by universities seem to be simply redundant.

Restricting access to university programs on the basis of nationality is also disconcerting from the perspective of an academic institution. For one thing, the policy could damage a school's reputation. The unflattering press reports about UMass in previous weeks bear witness to this reputation damage. For another, the ban violates basic tenets of academic freedom. In 1942, Robert Merton, a Columbia University sociologist, observed several norms of 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 essential to scientific progress today. When a university is required to select students on grounds other than merits, qualifications and credentials, it is a clear violation of this norm.

Limits on access to information in universities should ultimately be based on a thorough assessment of risks and benefits. When it comes to educational exchanges, the benefits generally far outweigh the risks. First, while Iran has been high on the list of U.S. adversaries for over three decades, Iranians are not anti-American. In fact, Iranians happen to be very sympathetic to Americans. This attitude is partly due to the cultural and academic exchanges that have taken place over years, despite political hostilities. The Economist pointed out that the Rohani administration--which came to power on a platform of engaging in diplomacy with the West--seems to have more PhDs from American universities than the Obama administration. Second, the Iranian academic community has traditionally been a bastion of reformism--a tendency Western governments and universities have every interest in encouraging. Finally, the social and intellectual relationships forged over years between scientists can form one of the most effective barriers to proliferation. Educational exchanges play a central role in creating these connections.

The rationale for both the Dutch and UMass restrictive policies was the same: limiting Iran's nuclear capabilities. And the moral foundation of the Dutch verdict is also applicable here--restricting access to programs of study in universities on the basis of nationality is unfair. It is also self-defeating. The only sensible option for UMass Amherst, and all U.S. universities, is not only to lift bans on study programs for Iranian graduate students, but to open doors more widely to qualified students. Welcoming students from countries throughout the world is a form of soft power that enriches universities and all of their students and supports the concept of academic freedom while improving national and international security.