Academic Freedom as a Basic Human Right
A Report on a Scholars-at-Risk Symposium, “Human Rights and Academic Repression,” held at the University of San Francisco on April 13-14, 2007
Scholars at Risk
The clash with the academics, whom the Minister of Intelligence calls “subversive,” has intensified with a new disaster, on the scale of July 9, 1999, looming. The government, refusing to make any concessions to the academics, is creating a repressive, military atmosphere inside universities. The students will not yield to the brutality of government officials and or halt their protests. The future brings a new fate for each of these groups.
The regime, which accuses the student movement of plotting to overthrow the government, recalls with nervousness the historic role university professors and students played in the overthrow of the Shah’s despotic regime. Today, global telecommunication and the free flow of information have transformed the world. Governments, under the attentive eye of the international community, can no longer resort to authoritarian methods of past kings and emperors to crush social movements. Today, human rights, including academic freedom, are an international priority, monitored by countless defenders for violation.
On April 13 and 14, 2007, human rights defenders called for an end to human rights violations, particularly the violation of the rights of academics, at a symposium titled “Human Rights and Academic Repression” at the University of San Francisco. Participants in the symposium defined the dimensions and developed indicators of academic freedom in order to better assess the repression of academic freedom by various governments. Information on the conference, including several reports, can be found at http://scholarsatrisk.nyu.edu/Beta/News/Conferences.php.
The conference identified a number of prerequisites to the development of a healthier higher education system: economic and political stability, respect for the values of higher education reflected in legislation, resources guaranteeing the stability of higher education institutions, placement of higher education in development goals, and clear authority for educational organizations on education matters. A working paper by the Scholars at Risk Network entitled “Standards on International Academic Freedom, Institutional Autonomy and Responsibility: A Summary of Existing Statements,” which was circulated before and during the conference for comments and which is currently being finalized, identifies several preconditions to a strong higher education system, including establishing autonomy of the university system from the government, clear accountability within the university, a fair and transparent admission process, and accessibility of education to all citizens.
The symposium also discussed academic freedom at the international level, citing Iraq as the worst violator of academic rights. Participants named Iran as another country in the Middle East trampling on academic freedoms.
One of the panels of this two-day symposium examined academic rights in the Middle East, the region at the center of global attention today. Keith Watenpaugh, Middle East studies professor at the University of California, expressed concern for access to educational and university resources, freedom from arbitrary treatment by state agencies, and enforcement of restrictions on academics in the Middle East. He went on to criticize the Israeli government for the travel restrictions across the Israeli-Palestinian border and restrictions on students attending school in Gaza. He also criticized the Iranian government, explaining that it has intensified the pressure on academics by expelling or forcibly retiring Iranian professors. According to Watenpaugh, in 2006, up to 45 secular or liberal professors in Iranian universities were forced to retire. He also criticized the American government for refusing to issue visas to Iranian students and professors. In a speech titled “Censorship and Legal Classification,” Watenpaugh said “Censorship has become a standard in the Middle East and this is an ailment that all the academics in the Middle East are suffering from.”
Watenpaugh also discussed recent arrests and death sentences of students in the Middle East. He referred to the murders of a geology professor at Baghdad University and student activist Akbar Mohammadi who died while in police custody in Evin prison. Watenpaugh argued “We should support active student organizations and non-governmental organizations in the Middle East – although we should remember that the United States is not viewed favorably in the Middle East and suspicion of American organizations is extremely high there.”
Shayee Khanaka from the University of California at Berkeley discussed the situation of academic rights in Iraq. As a Kurdish-American of Iraqi origin, she discussed the rights of academics in Iraq from a historical perspective. “The Baathist Party did not believe in freedom of speech within universities nor did it permit any comments in opposition to its ideology.” She said that Iraqi universities had been among the top producers of medical specialists in the Middle East, yet in the humanities, Iraq ranked considerably lower because censorship, widespread in the universities, prevented the development of students in the humanities.
International Pressure to Reduce the Repression of Academic Rights in Iran
Fatemeh Haghighatjoo, visiting scholar at Harvard University, focused her remarks on Iran. She offered a definition of academic freedom (complete freedom for studying, learning, research, and expressing opinions), stressing that academic freedom is at the core of the university’s mission. Clearly, Iranian universities are deprived of any security and freedom. Haghighatjoo described the Cultural Revolution in the first few years after the 1979 Revolution as key to understanding today’s educational environment. Universities were closed for three years, a huge number of academics were expelled, and the High Council of Cultural Revolution was established in order to legislate university regulations.
According to Haghighatjoo, the many restrictions and hurdles inside universities prevent any new perspectives, particularly opinions which do not support the current system. Sadly, many outstanding professors are expelled from universities for this reason, including well-known Iranian philosophers Dr. Mojtahed Shabestari and Dr. Abdolkarim Soroush.
Haghighatjoo was also concerned by the lack of legal protections for academics. “A number of academics desire the secularization of the government. Not only does this group not have the ability to express this view, but they are constantly on the verge of being ousted from the university because secular professors are viewed as a great danger. They are dealt with as if their actions threaten the regime directly.” Academics in Iran have also been prevented from participating in international gatherings and are under pressure not to cooperate with international networks.
Recent examples include the imprisonment of Dr. Ansari, member of the Islamic Association of Amir Kabir University charged with participating in an educational workshop in Germany, and Dr. Hashem Aghajari and Aboallah Momeni who were not permitted to participate in a seminar at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology this past November. Fatemeh Haghighatjoo views actions of the ruling regime to be flagrant violations against the rights of Iran’s university professors. These actions include clashes with secular professors, attacks by pressure groups on the student dormitories in Tehran and Tabriz, the order to execute of Dr. Hashem Aghajari for criticizing religion in a speech at a university, the arrest and four-month imprisonment of Iranian scholar Ramin Jahanbegloo, and the wide-spread and mass arrests of a number of Iranian university professors during the new government’s clashes with national-religious activists.
Haghighatjoo also addressed the trampling of students’ rights in Iran: “The list of violations of the rights of students grows longer every day.” Specifically, she cited the detainment of 99 students after the attacks on the dormitories and the imprisonment of a number of them from 1999 to today; the arrest of 80 students protesting the order to execute Dr. Hashem Aghajari, preventing 17 students from attending graduate school and forcing 54 students to write letters condemning their activities; the conviction of 24 students in 2005 for political activities and the opening of the case and trial of 11 other students this year, preventing 32 students from enrolling in universities; and the forced break-up of several student groups. According to Haghighatjoo, international pressures are effective in decreasing the violence on academic freedom in Iran.
As academics emphasized the important right to free speech and academic freedom to the participants of this seminar, the news of the arrest of 15 student protesters from the University of Mazandaran was a reminder of the continued violations of academic freedom in Iran. Similarly, the mass strike in April of 2000 when students at Shiraz University protested the dress code and veiling on the university campus raises concerns about renewed clashes between the security apparatus and students. Reports have said that the president of Shiraz University is rescinding the dress code and that the campus is peaceful.