One of the biggest disputes between Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s moderate administration and Iran’s conservative factions is centered on the issue of academic freedom. Conservative forces are attempting to stay in control of the country’s educational system, while the moderates are hoping to increase the autonomy of Iran’s universities. The outcome of this conflict will be a litmus test for the level of academic freedom permitted under the current administration.
The regime’s struggle to control academia is not new. Even before the contested 2009 Presidential Election, Iran’s universities were a hotbed of political activity. A series of student protests of July 1999 that began as a peaceful demonstration in Tehran were violently suppressed after six days of demonstrations and riots across the country. The desire to closely monitor and regulate student and faculty activities is therefore logical from the perspective of the country’s political elite, if they want to eliminate the chance of a spark that could result in mass public dissent.
Bearing this in mind, it was inevitable that the latest showdown between Rouhani’s administration and hardline conservatives would take place. It arose from the decision of Rouhani’s Minister of Science, Research and Technology, Reza Faraji-Dana, to alter the selection process of university presidents—an act that was met with swift opposition from those promoting more strict controls over the academic community.
In the new process, a university’s faculty can nominate a qualified individual from among themselves to the Science Ministry. The minister then submits the nomination to the Supreme Council of the Cultural Revolution (SCRC) in order to get the official stamp of approval. Among many other responsibilities, this conservative-dominated council is in charge of ensuring that the educational and cultural institutions of Iran remain “Islamic,” as the council understands it.
Until now, university faculty members were not consulted in the process, and the minister has also named a candidate of his own choosing to the SCRC. The previous system paved the way for the nomination of under-qualified candidates who, based on nepotism or political loyalty, were given leadership roles at Iranian universities.
Conservative elements within the regime have objected to the new selection process, wary of granting more autonomy to higher education institutions. In this regard, Mansour Kabganian, a member of SCRC, stated: “The Council believes that nomination and selection of candidates is the Health Minister’s and Science Minister’s right. The minister can ask for the advice of anyone during the process, but on the other hand, the approval or rejection of the candidate is the right of the Council.” Hardline website Rajanews published an article criticizing the administration by asking the rhetorical question, “what is the administration dreaming up? The independence of universities or disturbing the educational peace by so-called democratic gestures?”
The battle reached its climax in late June, when fifty lawmakers attempted to impeach Faraji-Dana. Among their reasons they listed the readmission of students who had previously been expelled, and the new university president selection process. After a parliamentary hearing, the impeachment process was postponed for a month on the condition that the minister would take the next thirty days to “investigate and resolve the impeachment items.”
Faraji-Dana further elaborated on his mission and the opposition of conservative figures during the inauguration ceremony of Mahmoud Nili Ahmad Abadi, the new Dean of Tehran University. “Universities are responsible to society,” he said. “Therefore, they should have sufficient authority to conduct their own affairs . . . [Conservatives believe] if the university faculty advises the Science Minister regarding the selection of the dean, the authority of higher-ups will be violated,” Faraji-Dana stated.
Some attempts at reform have also been made to reverse other ill-conceived policies from hardline former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. During his time in office, a number of laws and operational rules were altered in favor of the conservatives. As a result, the level of political interference in the country’s academic environment increased, which also resulted in the hiring of faculty members who were aligned with the administration’s ideology. Faraji-Dana is currently investigating 3,000 fellowships granted under Ahmadinejad, and says he will cancel those that were awarded illegitimately.
Fearing an unnecessary escalation of the conflict between political factions, the county’s Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, chimed in during a meeting with a group of university professors. “Officials and the heads of universities must make serious efforts to prevent scientific hubs from turning into places for the activities of political groups,” Khamenei stated on July 2.
Rouhani continues to promise more academic freedom in Iran, but the opposition to his plans has been strong. The ultimate acceptance or rejection of the Science Minister’s proposed changes by the SCRC will certainly be an indicator of the fate of attempts to grant more independence to the country’s universities in the future.
Thus far, the administration’s opponents are doing what they can to hinder the reform process by delaying the nomination of candidates, threatening to impeach the Science Minister, and accusing the administration of breaking laws. The outcome of the conflict is not certain, but a rejection of the Science Minister’s proposed changes would decrease any hope for short-term improvements in academic freedom in Iran.
All views expressed in this blog post are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, The Majalla magazine.