Higher Education Made to Walk the Hardline
by ALI CHENAR in Tehran
03 Nov 2010 22:31
Ideological correctness trumps academic performance.[ dispatch ] The recent dissolution of Iran University for Medical Sciences (IUMS) and the halt in developing new advanced degree programs in the social sciences have underscored again the character of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's higher education policies. Many have described his treatment of Iran's universities as impulsive at best, while others are baffled by its lack of cohesion. One thing is clear: While the government's actions may seem erratic and perplexing, they are directed toward a common goal -- reviving a strict centralism in the field of higher education, focused on conservative ideological values.
A University of Tehran lecturer said, "When President Khatami was in office, universities enjoyed some degree of autonomy and many controls were relaxed." I reminded him that Iran's universities have never really been autonomous. Their presidents are always appointed by the minister of higher education. "True," he acknowledged, "still, during Khatami, the minister at least would have asked the faculty's opinion. That novelty is long gone." The University of Tehran, the oldest academic institution in the country, has had three different presidents in the past five years. "From day one, Ahmadinejad sought to control the universities. He appointed his close allies to run the nation's prestigious schools, ignoring the faculty's views or objections," the lecturer added.
The events of recent years give credibility to this academician's assessment. In the early months of Ahmadinejad's first administration, his government retired several Iranian academicians and college professors. It replaced the presidents of the University of Tehran and Allameh Tabatabaei University (ATU) almost immediately with members of the clergy. Since then it has replaced several others across the country. Only a few months ago, the presidents of two of Iran's most prestigious academic institutions, Sharif University of Technology and the Institute for Advanced Studies in Basic Sciences, were replaced. In most of these cases, the decision to remove the school's chief officer caught students and faculty by surprise. Amir, an engineering student, said, "I think the government was afraid of students' reaction, so they tried to minimize the objections by sudden announcements and a speedy replacement process."
Mohammad, a graduate student in a provincial school, thinks the government is trying to micromanage the universities. "It is true that schools were not independent from the government during Khatami, but they had some say in hiring their faculty and designing their programs." That authority is gone now -- all new faculty members at every university must be cleared by the Ministry of Higher Education. This was the procedure during the 1980s, a decade marked by revolutionary fervor and radical Islamic puritanism. As for the new programs, universities have to wait a long time for a green light. Two weeks ago, the ministry announced that it has halted approving new master's programs in a dozen social science majors including law, philosophy, management, psychology, political science, women's studies, human rights, economics, and education. The officials told reporters that the contents of these programs must be reviewed to match Islamic and national standards. "It seems that ideological correctness has become the government's first priority," Mohammad added with a sigh.
Indeed, several high-ranking officials have emphasized their commitment to fighting Western influence in Iran's universities. And in case they forget their promises there is Ayatollah Mohammad Taghi Mesbah Yazdi, the leading ultra-conservative religious figure. Just last summer, he told the annual gathering of the Assembly of Experts that "some of the course contents in our universities are outright anti-Islamic." He cautioned his audience, "If the authorities do not take the necessary measures, we shall step forward ourselves."
Ahmadinejad's administration requires little encouragement. It is already interfering in the day-to-day business of Iranian academia. It is rumored that the decision to dissolve IUMS was made by the president himself. The Ministry for Higher Education is enforcing the Islamic dress code zealously. It has distributed leaflets describing the proper Islamic outfit for students in classrooms and lecture halls, and reminded school officials that the dress code is required by law.
These changes have been frustrating for the many who thought the Reformists' modest improvements permanent. Zahra, a social sciences major who graduated from ATU during the Reformist era, grew furious as she recalled a recent visit to her alma mater. "I went to school to see an old professor and to follow up on some paperwork with the administration. I was stopped at the entrance. They have separated the women's entrance from the men's. And there were female guards who checked me for makeup." Her eyes sparked and her face turned crimson. "When I was a student, no one ever stopped me at the gate. There was one entrance for both men and women. I felt as if the school has gone back to the Stone Age."
Few in academia doubt the counterproductive effect of these changes. A veteran humanities professor said, "All of this is happening at a crucial time. In the past two decades, Iranian universities and colleges have been building up their academic strength. There is a huge demand for their expansion into graduate studies." That expansion will not materialize under the current circumstances. "We need stability and peace to carry on teaching and research. Faculty members across the country are already stressed by the economic conditions. When job instability is added to their worries, the outcome will not be academic progress." One wonders, though, if academic progress is anywhere on Ahmadinejad's list of priorities.
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