Hardliners Tighten Grip on Academia
by ALI CHENAR in Tehran
02 Sep 2010 06:09
Heads of two elite institutions replaced.For Iranian academics, last week was anything but promising. Kamran Daneshjou, minister for higher education, appointed new presidents for two of the country's most prestigious educational institutions. Dr. Saeed Sohrabpour, president of Sharif University of Technology, known simply as Sharif, bid farewell to the school he had managed for more than a decade. Daneshjou thanked him for his long and distinguished service, and wrote, "Therefore I accept your resignation, which you have submitted on several occasions on the grounds of your health." Although Sohrabpour was not in excellent health, still his departure from Sharif caught everyone by surprise. Dr. Gholam-Ali Haddad Adel, an Ahmadinejad supporter and former speaker of the Majles (parliament), said at the farewell ceremony, "I was told you have resigned. I still cannot believe you have."
A few days later, Danenshjou abruptly sacked Dr. Yousef Sabouti, founder and president of the elite Institute for Advanced Studies in Basic Sciences (IASBS) located in Zanjan province, 200 miles west of Tehran. While Sohrabpour's departure from Sharif was marked by a formal farewell ceremony and speeches by Majles deputies and administration officials, Sabouti, a physicist, was forced out of office by one of the deputy ministers, Gholam-Reza Khajeh Sarvari, who later gloated to a gathering at the University of Tehran, "This person was in charge of IASBS for twenty years and no one ever dared to touch him. I went, set to have him removed, even if it would have cost me my life." Few shared his opinion that physics could be that lethal.
A pioneer in academic research, Sabouti is admired by his students and loved by the people of Zanjan, who are proud to be home to IASBS. The education ministry's arrogance in dealing with him angered many. In a rare show of political backbone, Zanjan's 15 Majles representatives wrote a letter of protest to the minister of higher education. Zanjan residents and IASBS students have held vigils and demonstrations to express their dissatisfaction. Citing security concerns, officials postponed the farewell ceremony for Sabouti, which was finally attended by the governor of Zanjan. Officially, Sabouti is still on active duty. In an effort to preempt public anger, Daneshjou has appointed him to several nominal posts within the ministry of higher education's bureaucracy. If these appointments were supposed to convey a sense of respect for Sabouti's 45 years of public service, they have failed. Everybody in Zanjan knows that he had requested to stay in his position for another six months to celebrate the 20th anniversary of IASBS's founding.
Some argue that both presidents had been in their positions long enough to justify their removals. Many in academic circles beg to differ. They point out that both have been replaced by individuals so loyal to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad that they seem more like functionaries than academicians. Dr. Reza Roosta Azad, appointed the interim president of Sharif University of Technology, is a member of an ultra-conservative political group called Jameiyat-e Isaargaraan-e Eslami, or the Society of Islamic Revolution Devotees. In the weeks preceding his appointment, the Fars news agency, which strongly backs Ahmadinejad's agenda, quoted Roosta Azad in several interviews. In one, he condemned the Green Movement and those who demonstrated last year in protest at the results of the presidential election. In another, he harshly criticized Mohammad Reza Shajarian, an iconic figure in Iranian music who has been censured by the government for supporting the Green Movement. He called Shajarian "a man who has lost his place in the heart of people."
A Sharif faculty member, speaking under condition of anonymity, told me, "The administration is sending a clear signal to Iranian academicians -- that neither loyalty to the Islamic Republic nor a brilliant academic history is sufficient to keep them in their positions. They are saying if you want to stay employed, you must be loyal to Ahmadinejad and his government." A few students with whom I discussed the recent events agreed with this view. One, a 20-year-old engineering major, told me, "After the presidential election, Dr. Sohrabpour did his best to keep Sharif campus calm and functioning. He showed great tact and moderation in dealing with different student groups who sympathized with the Green Movement, avoiding any provocation. Instead of thanking him, they are canning him." Another, a 24-year-old master's student, said, "It is really difficult to collaborate with people who desire to hear only 'Yes, sir!' They are not appreciative of anyone's service, but only of their obedience."
What has escaped many observers is the fact that the recent events mark a departure from the Islamic Republic's established higher education policies. Beginning in the late 1980s, Iranian governments have advocated "academic islands of excellence." One of the major supporters of the program was Haddad Adel, then a deputy minister in the ministry for education. He helped organize national competitions in physics, mathematics, chemistry, and computer sciences and training for student teams to take part in international academic Olympiads, where they won many medals. The government did not hesitate to use these opportunities to boast about its scientific and technological achievements.
While these islands of excellence had to comply with official regulations, they were run by professionals and scholars. Their faculty members, although constrained by a lack of resources, were allowed to conduct research and to communicate relatively freely with international organizations. Sharif became one of the first Iranian universities to establish ties with European and North American academic institutions. Its students successfully gained admission to Stanford, MIT, Harvard, and other prestigious universities in the United States. The global community began to take notice of Iran's academia and appreciate what it has accomplished despite its many challenges. That era seems to be at an end. Once more in Tehran one can hear the cry, "Revolutions do not need scientists." Ironically, there's not even a revolution any more.
Copyright © 2010 Tehran Bureau