Attacks on Academic Freedom in Iran
Efforts to Combat Them
Since Mahmoud Ahmadinejad took office as President of Iran, academic freedom has eroded as the leaders of the Islamic revolution have assumed control of every aspect of the nation's universities in a determined effort to suppress thoughts that might weaken their hold on the country.
The government's attack has been a comprehensive violation of academic freedoms that includes restrictive hiring and promotion policies, warnings against activism, interference with teaching, unwanted transfers to other institutes, firings, forced retirements and resignations of professors, salary cuts, prosecutions, travel bans, and censorship of professors’ publications. Students have been expelled, barred from registering for classes, denied access to graduate study, prosecuted, detained, imprisoned, tortured, and denied the right to assemble peaceably or hold a rally. Student unions and magazines have been shut down, and there has been a general restriction against any student-run organization.
I intend to address the less visible violations of academic freedom in Iran.
Iran’s government fundamentally disagrees with the academic field of social science. The clerics view it as nothing more than imported western knowledge. Consequently, they believe that religious schools should control the field by Islamizing its content. For this Islamization, they have targeted professors, students, and content of courses. One member of Parliament said that “universities’ books are neither indigenous nor Islamic.” As a result, a policy of editing the content of social science curricula was put in place. For instance, the women’s studies field was the unhappy recipient of such changes in both the titles of courses and their content. The title of, “The Feminist Theories,” was replaced with, “Criticism of Feminist Theories.” Aside from this, the content of the entrance exam for a master’s degree in women’s studies was changed, with some questions and topics added, such as “polygamy,” “the conditions for proving adultery,” and “the degree of burying a woman accused of adultery in preparation for stoning.”
Contrary to its international commitments and obligations, the Iranian government violates academic freedom through setting new policies and regulations, which therefore give a legal face to them. Since 1980, the Supreme Council of the Cultural Revolution (SCCR) has been in charge of setting regulations for all educational and cultural organizations, including universities. For example, the Council passed a new regulation regarding the hiring policy for universities in 2007. According to this regulation, universities no longer have the right to hire professors on a permanent basis. Instead, they may only hire professors for terms of one year, after which time their central committees for the selection of professors must approve either the rehiring or firing of them. Also, according to another regulation, the Ministry of Intelligence and Security must approve each nominee. Thus, the government has restricted hiring policy so as not only to bar the hiring of secular professors for any department, but also to narrow the hiring pool to very religious and Basiji [paramilitary] professors, whose ideas are in line with the current government.
Iran’s government controls the behavior of professors with a carrot-and-stick policy—blocking the promotion of any professor whose ideas are not in line with those in power. Professors are held back from promotion after engaging in any civic or political activism deemed objectionable by the government. Thus, any academic, regardless of, and even without academic qualification, may advance to the status of full university professor in Iran. A regulation is now in place requiring that a university chancellor must be selected from among associate and full professors.
Recently, at Tehran University, the person whom President Ahmadinejad wished to appoint as Chancellor did not have sufficient qualifications. To remove this obstacle, Tehran University’s Promotion Committee decided to advance him to the level of associate professor. The promotion took place simply because the university’s president approved of his viewpoints – not because he was capable of handling the demands of the position. This was how, for the first time, a senior manager of the Intelligence Ministry became the chancellor of the most important university of Iran.
Another university regulation seemingly put into place to foster a sense of equality among professionals in a merit based system, is routinely ignored. The regulation says once a professor completes his or her Ph.D., he or she is automatically promoted to the level of assistant professor. Many professors, who have finished their Ph.D.s, have not been given such a promotion due to their political convictions.
Furthermore, professors are routinely asked to participate in, or are prohibited from, certain activities in order to either keep their jobs or get promoted. Some professors, who have signed petitions in objection to certain government policies, have not been promoted, and were even given verbal warnings. As a result, the overall participation of professors in civic engagements has significantly dropped. This has caused the stifling effect of making academics very passive in order to maintain their job security. In addition, university professors lack a union to voice objections to the government regarding these policies. Traditionally, there have been very few such organizations, and those that have existed have been passive and nearly useless.
In the past few years, well-known professors have been forced to retire or were fired due to their views. In June 2006 alone, 40-45 secular and liberal professors were forced to retire. This is reminiscent of the Cultural Revolution which followed the Islamic Revolution. In April of 1980, government forces invaded college campuses and closed down the universities for a three-year period under the pretext of a “cultural revolution.” Ayatollah Khomeini, the founding Supreme Leader, called for the removal of academics whose ideas and writings showed evidence of sympathy to either western or eastern powers. Many professors were summarily fired. Also, many professors, researchers, scholars and activists are banned from traveling to deliver lectures, attend conferences, or to pursue their research.
One of the indicators of academic freedom is the independence of universities, which is noticeably absent in Iran. In the last few years, the SCCR has set regulations that decrease the autonomy and independence of universities. Looking at the responsibilities of university boards of trustees shows how the SCCR has reduced their power – it has left them in charge of financial issues and nothing else. Trustees may not even choose their own chancellors or deans.
The Ahmadinejad administration looks at civil society and demands for democracy as a threat to Iran’s national security. An enthusiastic assistant to this effort was found in Ali Kordan, the recently impeached Minister of the Interior, who views, as security challenges, social movements such as: ethnic coalitions, religious movements (such as Wahabi and Bah’ai), sectarianism, democracy versus Islamic democracy, secularism, Internet blogs and other virtual activism, any movement for intellectual freedom, environmentalism, feminism, and modernism versus traditionalism. Kordan stated that Iran’s enemies employ such “soft” operations and intend to use them to interfere in the Islamic Republic. Meanwhile, Gholam-Hossein Mohseni-Ejeie, the Intelligence Minister, stated that Iran’s enemy’s new policy is to plan for a variety of movements, including the women’s movement and the student movement. Accordingly, he claims, the universities, the base of Iran’s intellectuals, are their primary target of operations.
Unfortunately, in recent years, many talented students have been disqualified from pursuing their educations simply because they have dared to criticize the government. The Ministry of Intelligence and Security not only has the power to approve the hiring of professors, it also has the authority to admit or bar applicants to graduate study programs. The system of admission to public universities is under the control of the government. The Educational Evaluation Organization is in charge of administering a standard exam for admission to undergraduate and graduate programs, excluding some Ph.D. degrees. According to the SCCR’s regulations, a list of admitted students of all levels must be sent to the Ministry of Intelligence and Security for moral and political approval before announcing the list of approved applicants to any program of study, effectively making the Intelligence Ministry a "thought police."
Although student movements have been under attack for decades, the dimensions of the attack have expanded. Every day, there is more news about student organizations being shut down, and student activists getting expelled, barred from admission to academic programs, imprisoned, and tortured. The Judiciary has convicted and sentenced 24 students to prison terms for their political activities. The authorities have prosecuted 48 students on politically motivated charges. The security forces have interrogated 24 students, arrested 57 students, and issued 54 verdicts against them. There were 900 students subpoenaed by the university disciplinary committees, resulting in 300 court cases for political activism filed against students. There were 136 verdicts handed down, with many of those students expelled, plus 32 students suspended from continuing their studies for up to three semesters.
Obediently carrying out government policy, university supervision boards have suspended or banned 37 student-run associations from operating on campuses. These student associations have engaged solely in peaceful political activities. In addition, 48 student-run publications have been banned. Any program that criticizes the government is forbidden.
Regarding objections to the violation of academic freedom, most of these efforts come from students rather than from professors. Despite the fact that the student movement receives the brunt of government attacks, it is more active than other academic groups to object to academic freedom violation. Every day, there are more statements by Iranian students regarding human rights violations at universities, as well as news about strife at various universities reported after any rally or sit-in when some of its organizers are inevitably arrested.
The Tahkim-e Vahdat (Office for the Consolidation of Unity) Student Union sent a report to the European Students’ Union (ESU) summit regarding the status of academic freedom in Iran in October of 2008. The report stated that of the more than 200 students detained, 20 of them are still imprisoned, and 300 students were barred from pursuing their education in the past year and a half. Furthermore, add to that the summoning of 800 students to universities’ disciplinary committees and the barring of 100 students from graduate study due to their beliefs in the past three years. The torture of student prisoners in one case caused death of Kurdish student, Ebrahim Lotfolahi, and another Kurdish student, Haib Latifi, was given the death sentence. Thirty professors were forced to retire during this year. Student assemblies were harassed and have led to many detentions. Forty-five opposition student organizations were disbanded. The report declares that the cooperation of the chancellors of universities with government security forces has spread insecurity and terror.
Consequently, the students’ slogan is “university is not military” and they ask for the resignation of these chancellors. They concluded that they need the support of international organizations, students and professors. Also, Iranian professors need to be supported by the UNSCO to defend their job security. Moreover, student activists have published and reported those violations soon after any forced retirement, condemnation, summons, detention, or any other attack. There are many Internet blogs that catalog these violations. Hence, retaliating for this attempt at the exercise of freedom of speech, the judicial consultant to the public prosecutor stated that “more than five million web sites were filtered.”
However, added to these efforts, 109 professors, including two former Ministers of Higher Education, wrote a letter to President Ahmadinejad to voice their concern about the future of universities and scientific development in Iran. They identified three main concerns: the weakening of the foundation and structure of scientific development; the transforming of both the function and culture of universities; and the decreasing participation of professors and students. Finally, they paid special attention to academic freedom, discussing the forced retirement of professors and the barring of student activities from the afore-mentioned categories.
The mothers of students who were barred from pursuing their educations wrote a letter of objection to President Ahmadinejad. They state in this letter that “we were told that our children have hostility with the regime and the security forces disagree with continuing our children's education. Nobody explained to us when and how they cherish enmity with the regime. Why are they denied the rights of education? Students who haven’t had student activities or if some of them were active, they never are condemned at the court, or if some of them condemned, it does not relate to acting against the regime. Which Islamic and humanistic laws would accept to ruin the fate/future of some young talented students by barring to continue their education because of different style and hurt the feelings of their families?
In addition to this outspokenness by mothers, some political parties issued statements objecting to the violations of professors’ and students’ rights. Newspapers have reported news of specific incidents of professors being fired, as well as when professors are restricted from academic trips. Ten parliamentarians notified President Ahmadinejad of their desire for him to order a stop to the firing of professors at Tehran and Shahid Behesti Universities. As a part of this show of legislative forcefulness, Mr. Tavakoli, another Member of Parliament, wrote a letter to the Minister of Higher Education asking that he revoke the illegal retirement and salary cut imposed on a professor.
A case in point regarding the violation of professors’ rights came to light as I interviewed Professor Mohsen Kadivar, who is a cleric as well as an expert in both philosophy and Islam. He was in prison for several years, due to his beliefs and intellectual ideas. He shared the story of how he was forced to transfer to a research institute instead of continuing to teach at Tarbiat Modares University. He said that because he had not yet reached the age of retirement, the university could not allow him to formally retire. Instead, the head of the university referred his case to the Disciplinary Board on the ground of speeches that he had made outside of the university, which had not been approved by the Ministry of Intelligence and Security. The Board issued a statement that it lacked the authority to investigate this case, both because this was the right of the Intelligence Ministry and because the speech was made outside of the university.
In response, the head of the university dismissed the board and opened a case against Kadivar before the Parliament’s Commission of 90. According to Article 90 of Iran’s Constitution, this Commission is in charge of investigating complaints against individuals whenever their rights are violated by any public institution. The irony of this situation was that the spirit of this law was being twisted against the sort of individual whom it was written to protect. Meanwhile, Dr. Kadivar had a case open at the Clerics Special Court, due to speeches he had made after his first imprisonment. The head of the university opened a case against him at that court as well.
Thanks to the centralized system of government in Iran, all decisions, including those concerning higher education, are made exclusively by governmental authorities. Universities have no authority or autonomy; even private schools are not exempt from this supervision and control. This makes countering obstacles to academic freedom an impossible goal in the present circumstances. Unfortunately, all of the policies that defended academic freedom (made during the 1997-2005 Reform Movement) have been reversed by Iran’s current government. So it seems that decentralization of Iran’s government and the establishment of independence for the nation’s universities might be the answer to the problem of strengthening academic freedom in the future of Iran.
Finally, I would like to suggest the possibility of creating virtual majors in Farsi. Although there are many virtual universities that enable almost anyone to pursue their education, the courses offered with languages other than Farsi are very expensive. Most Iranian students are not able to pursue their education due to both the language barrier and cost. Therefore, launching an Internet university entirely in Farsi would provide a necessary academic forum for those students and professors who were barred from Iranian universities.
 Haghighatjoo, F. (2007). Lecture on Human rights violation in Iran panel at Harvard.