University of Minnesota faculty members have kept their word.
Last month, a group of 14 professors sent a letter to TCF Bank protesting the financial institution’s notice to close at least eight Iranian students’ accounts, accusing the bank of discrimination.
The professors promised to move their direct deposit accounts in defiance of the bank’s actions and have all done so, said Karen Ho, associate professor of anthropology. Some will also begin to move their TCF mortgages and other accounts.
Students, faculty and organizations like the National Iranian American Council spoke out after the Iranian students received account closure letters in late December without explanation.
A week after the professors’ Jan. 22 letter, the bank responded, explaining the federal laws it must abide by.
In the letter, TCF expressed concern for the faculty members’ protest and outlined the bank’s legal obligations.
It cited economic and trade sanctions. The banks also must monitor transactions to detect and prevent money laundering under the Bank Secrecy Act.
TCF was fined $10 million in late January for “inadequate monitoring” by the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, which is part of the U.S. Department of the Treasury.
Ho, the primary author of the faculty members’ letter, said this could’ve been the basis for the closure letters.
“It’s almost like overcompensating for the fact that they had been fined,” she said, adding that TCF’s actions targeted a “vulnerable” population.
“In the course of performing this due diligence,” TCF said in the letter, “the institution may be required to … close an account and discontinue the customer relationship.”
Adherence to U.S. sanctions against Iran is “complicated,” the bank said in the letter.
“[I]t is necessary that a depository institution ensure that funds do not originate from a U.S. blocked Iranian financial institution,” TCF continued in the letter, “and this may not be easy to do, especially when funds are deposited in cash.”
But faculty members working with the affected Iranian students said the students didn’t violate any laws, and TCF’s response didn’t say they had either.
Anthropology professor William Beeman said faculty members and the bank are at a standoff, pending further action by the bank.
“You can’t sue anybody unless you actually can show damages,” he said. “But I believe their actions … have been discriminatory.”
Beeman said he worked with about a dozen students who received the closure letters, while public health graduate student Alireza Asary said he knew of at least 21 Iranian students who received the letter.
Jason Korstange, a TCF spokesman, previously told the Minnesota Daily that the bank sent closure letters to more than just students and Iranian individuals and that not every Iranian student at the University received a letter.
“We don’t close accounts just to close accounts,” Korstange said.
Ho said since TCF has a “special relationship” with the University — a contract allowing students to link their TCF account with their U card for free — it should embrace the University’s ideals like diversity and public engagement.
Student says accounts are still open
Ho said many students weren’t able to talk to a bank employee about an explanation and some were told they had a day to respond to a questionnaire about their account activity.
“There’s been a very uneven handling of questions, reasons, rationales,” Ho said. “How they’ve handled the aftermath has been probably as unfortunate as the letter itself.”
In order to avoid an involuntary closure of his account, Asary did so after he consulted with the University Student Legal Service.
Other students filled out the questionnaire about account activity that TCF provided when the students followed up, but according to TCF’s response letter, the account could still be closed.
Asary said TCF didn’t close the Iranian students’ accounts on Jan. 29, as the bank had claimed originally. He said students hadn’t heard from the bank in some time.
As of Sunday, TCF still hasn’t closed the accounts, he said.
‘A slap in the face’
Both TCF and University community members have contacted Minnesota Congressman Keith Ellison, who sits on the House Committee on Financial Services, to see what can be done about the issue.
Beeman said one student tried to open an account with a local credit union but wasn’t able to once he told the union he was Iranian.
“There’s a certain prejudice that has attended to the Iranian students who are trying to get accounts set up elsewhere,” Beeman said.
Some Iranian students at the University of Illinois at Chicago, where TCF also has a contract, also received letters saying their accounts would be closed, but graduate student Farid Peiravi said in an email that the company later apologized to him and didn’t close his account.
Peiravi said he recently recommended TCF to an Iranian student who just arrived and the student was able to open an account without an incident.
“I don’t know if TCF’s change of heart was a statewide or a country-wide decision, but we have not had any problems with TCF in the past month or so,” he said in an email.
Although Ho said she was pleased TCF responded to the faculty members’ protest letter, she said the bank didn’t give the Iranian students an explanation.
The fact that the students received a response because of the faculty members’ actions, she said, is demeaning.
“It was sort of a slap in the face,” she said.