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Volunteer Feds

State repression doesn't just happen by fiat — it relies on private systems of coercion.

Members of the Hollywood Ten and their families protesting their imminent imprisonment.

Over the weekend, my sister Melissa sent me a piece from the Boston Globe on the University of Massachusetts’ recent decision to bar Iranian nationals from several of the school’s graduate programs. The blockbuster in the piece: “The college’s new policy, which appears to be rare if not unique among US universities, appeared to catch the US State Department by surprise.”

The State Department had no idea that this policy was in the offing, and more important, seems to believe or suggest that the policy may be unnecessary.

A US State Department official said that the department was aware of news reports about the UMass decision but that there had been no changes in federal policy regarding Iranian students and he could not say why UMass would change its policy. The department will contact UMass to discuss the decision and will answer any questions from other academic institutions about the law, the official said.

“All visa applications are reviewed individually in accordance with the requirements of the US Immigration and Nationality Act and other relevant laws that establish detailed standards for determining eligibility for visas and admission to the United States,” the official, who declined to be quoted by name, said in an e-mail.

“US law does not prohibit qualified Iranian nationals coming to the United States for education in science and engineering,” the official continued. “Each application is reviewed on a case-by-case basis.”

Got that? It is not US law that prohibits Iranian nationals from applying and enrolling in UMass’s engineering and natural sciences graduate programs; it is UMass itself that is doing that.

In one paragraph, the UMass vice chancellor for research and engagement, Mike Malone, claims that the policy was developed in consultation with faculty and students (though every student and faculty member I’ve talked to at UMass claimed they only learned of the policy from my blog).

But in a later paragraph Malone gives a different story:

Malone said that after discussing the issue with outside legal counsel and with faculty at other institutions, administrators believe UMass is in the mainstream of American institutions in having such a policy, though it is rare to publish it.

The moment this story broke and I began talking with sanctions experts, one of whom works for a law firm that specializes in these questions (see update here), I got nervous. Forgive me a historical tangent.

Back during the McCarthy years, institutions like UMass — and outside academia as well; in Hollywood and other parts of the culture industry, and throughout the economy as a whole — were run by nervous administrators and managers and CEOs who wanted to be in compliance with the government. I’m not talking about the true believer anticommunists; just run-of-the-mill, apolitical or even liberal, apparatchiks whose first duty, they felt, was to their job and their institution.

Uncertain about the law and the rules, fearful that if they broke them their institutions would suffer, these administrators turned to outside consultants — often, lawyers — for “advice.” Except that the advice industry was itself stacked with two types: either true-believing anticommunists, who had a vested interest in purging the country of reds and leftists and liberals and more, or bottom-liners (and bottom-feeders) whose livelihood depended upon institutions like UMass needing their “advice.”

The combination of this advice industry and nervous administrators was lethal: through some elaborate dance of advice and consent, repressive policies were propounded. Not by force, not by threat, but voluntarily, consensually.

It wasn’t simply the state that was the problem; it was the relay system of coercion that private actors in civil society set up, that radiated power far beyond what it was capable of, that made the whole system of repression as widespread as it was. This, incidentally, was precisely the kind of society Hobbes envisioned in Leviathan: not simply an all-powerful sovereign, but an army of preachers and teachers, working in churches and — wait for it: universities — who would extend the power of the sovereign far beyond what it could muster.

I don’t want to over-read the UMass story. But that mention of seeking “outside legal counsel” and my conversation yesterday with one representative — perfectly well meaning and well intentioned, from what I can gather — of that advice industry makes me worried that the policy at UMass, and other institutions as well, is being driven by a similar dynamic. Particularly when you throw in the State Department’s surprise and clear statement that this policy is not actually required by US government policy.