The educated middle class that played an influential role in electing Hassan Rouhani to the Iranian presidency in June 2013 is anxious to see his promises of “prudence and hope” fulfilled. One area that Rouhani’s administration is expected to reform is higher education, which was targeted for political and intellectual purges under the hardline conservative administrations of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Rouhani’s Ministry of Sciences, the main government body overseeing higher learning, has already taken important steps. The new minister, Faraji Dana, has promised that students will no longer be denied educational opportunities because of their political beliefs. [1] Dana was referring to a policy by which the students of known dissidents are banned from admission into masters and doctoral programs or other avenues of educational advancement. This policy is nearly as old as the Islamic Republic, but Ahmadinejad’s governments enforced it more aggressively than their predecessors. Today, several of the students who were denied admission have already returned to universities, and some of the programs removed from the curriculum under Ahmadinejad, such as women’s studies, are accepting students for the new school year. Iran’s parliament, still controlled by conservatives, is unhappy with the changes. Dana was summoned in January to answer the questions of 23 parliamentarians — and the deputies clearly found the minister’s responses unsatisfactory. Regardless, the Ministry of Sciences appears determined to push ahead with the reforms.

But there is a larger problem with Iranian higher education, particularly in social sciences and some of the humanities, that seems likely to remain intractable for the foreseeable future. Under Ahmadinejad, hundreds of new faculty members in these fields were appointed on the basis of their devotion to the Islamic Republic — a practice plainly at odds with existing practices such as considering the quality and quantity of academic publications and the endorsements of senior scholars. The new appointments were made in concert with the firing of several high-ranking professors who, according to the regime, were disseminating secular ideas.

Cadres Not Experts

Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the first leader of the Islamic Republic, famously accused Iranian intellectuals of “Westoxication” — a state resulting from imbibing too much of the Enlightenment tradition to the extent of accepting the idea that religion is a personal matter rather than the basis of a healthy society. Khomeini and his fellow clergy resolved to “Islamize” the life of the mind just as they had supplanted the Shah at the helm of the state with velayat-e faqih (rule of the jurist).

As the Islamic Republic aged, hardliners in the regime came to feel even more strongly that modern social sciences were not just an ideological rival but also a threat to the survival of the regime. The emphasis of many social scientists on concepts like democracy, civil society and individualism contrasted starkly with themes integral to the regime, such as the duty of citizens to serve the revolution and clerical authority to make all decisions regarding public affairs. Modern law was also perceived as a threat because it recognizes sources of law other than sacred texts and clerical interpretation thereof. “Any law that is incompatible with shari‘a is not a law,” Khomeini pronounced in 1982. [2]

The first expression of the hardliners’ fears was the Cultural Revolution of 1980-1983, during which university campuses were temporarily shut down, many leftist and liberal professors and students expelled, and courses in Islamic theology and ethics forcibly integrated into the curriculum. An important strand of state propaganda identified commitment to the regime (ta‘ahhod) as the relevant qualification for public service in the post-revolutionary era. According to this slogan, it is devoted loyalists who deserve jobs rather than people with expertise (takhassos) in the field in question. The Cultural Revolution was never completed in many social sciences and humanities fields, since there were simply not enough “committed” professors with the proper degrees to replace all the professors who had been sacked.

Ironically, after universities reopened in 1983, they hired several social scientists who were critical of the regime’s ideology and who had acquired their doctorates in Europe or the United States. At the Faculty of Law and Political Science at Tehran University, the oldest institution of higher education in the country, a secular scholar named Hossein Bashirieh started teaching courses in political sociology, political development and theories of revolution. Several of Bashirieh’s students, such as Saeed Hajjarian, Mostafa Tajzadeh and Sohrab Razzaqi, went on to become key figures in the reform movement that coincided with the presidency of Mohammad Khatami (1997-2005). In those years as well, Bashirieh’s classes were among the most popular in the department.

During the Cultural Revolution, the University of Tehran fired a dozen of its most prominent law professors after they signed a letter against the “Islamization” of Iran’s penal code, which (among other changes) substituted the notion of lex talionis for accountability to the public in cases of murder and assault. [3] By lex talionis, the victim or the victim’s family had the right to determine the punishment — anything from “an eye for an eye” to financial compensation — and even had the right to forgive and free the assailant. This section of the penal code was revised in 1991 under social pressure to restore some accountability to the public. Long before then, however, the University of Tehran had invited the fired professors to resume their positions, because there were not enough qualified replacements.

The slow erosion of the Cultural Revolution on campus accelerated greatly after Khatami was swept into office in 1997. One of the reformist president’s first initiatives was to grant autonomy to university departments in decisions about personnel. Each department decided who to hire and promote and the faculty as a whole elected the university president.

When hardliners took over the Ministry of Sciences again in 2005, they canceled the procedure of electing university presidents. The new regime-appointed presidents began to interfere with the inner workings of departments and to repopulate departments with candidates deemed more “committed.” Many of the new hires were former members of the Student Basij, the campus branch of the militia formed during the Iran-Iraq war, or had other connections to the arch-conservatives who came to dominate the Iranian state.

Raising the stakes of the ideological rivalry inside the Islamic Republic is the growth of the Iranian middle class over the last three decades, which is closely tied to the expansion of higher education, which in turn derives from the revolution’s achievements in public health, primary education and social welfare. Over the last three decades, the number of university students in Iran has grown 27 times larger, according to a Ministry of Sciences official. [4] At present there are about 3.5 million students in Iran, about 44 percent of whom are enrolled in social science programs. [5] The burgeoning educated middle class is the social force that has most consistently challenged the regime in the last two decades, as with the reform movement of 1997-2005 and the Green Movement that followed the manipulation of the 2009 presidential election. The educated middle class also discomfits the regime with daily practices, or “non-movements,” to borrow Asef Bayat’s terminology, [6] such as the phenomenon of bad hejab or the “immodest” headscarves and clothing worn by many urban women. As a social and political force, the middle class will only become more powerful over time.

The Ahmadinejad government’s assault on social sciences was part of a systematic project to reshape the mores of the next generation of the professional and managerial middle class. Uniformed women policed the streets for bad hejab. By the same token, departmental standards of hiring and promotion based on academic credentials and merit were replaced with gauges of dedication to the regime, because the professors judging colleagues based on merit tended to be the same ones who were teaching “subversive” ideas to their mostly middle-class students.

In the Ahmadinejad era, however, Ministry of Science officials had a key advantage over their predecessors during the Cultural Revolution. They could draw from a much larger pool of devotees to the regime, men and women who had earned their doctorates in Iran in the 1990s and 2000s, to replace blacklisted professors.

Social Sciences, a Fortress Yet to Be Conquered

The purges sped up after the 2009 presidential election, as the regime started a campaign labeling social scientists as the principal architects of the Green Movement protests against the electoral fraud. Central to this campaign was an August 2009 speech delivered by Khomenei’s successor as Iran’s leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei: “How many faculty members do we have in social sciences who believe in the Islamic worldview and who teach sociology, psychology and management to the many students that we enroll? Lots of social science subjects are based on materialism — considering humans to be animals, rejecting the responsibility of humans before God, negating a spiritual view of the human race and the universe. Shall we simply import these ideas and teach them to our youth? That is not desirable.”

Mohammad Mehdi Zahedi, minister of sciences at the time, followed up by stating that in order to address the Leader’s concerns the Ministry would revise the social sciences curriculum. [7] He explained, “In several branches of social sciences faculties, there are graduates of schools in other countries, particularly Europe. They might be faithful individuals, but their scientific insights are not infused or compatible with Islamic teachings.” [8] Zahedi added that his ministry had received a special permit from President Ahmadinejad to hire 3,000 more faculty members than the number specified in the Fourth Development Program.

The next minister of sciences, Kamran Daneshjoo, was even more assertive in prosecuting the campaign against independent thinkers. Daneshjoo had supervised the 2009 election, and was promoted to the cabinet after proclaiming Ahmadinejad the winner. In a 2010 speech, he said: “Whoever fails to walk in the regime’s path should leave [the universities] without reservation.” [9] On another occasion, he declared that “we need faculty at universities with real commitment to Islam and velayat-e faqih…. These faculty should train cadres [for the regime] so that the system remains strong and victorious.” [10]

Hardline newspapers such as Keyhan and the news agency run by the Revolutionary Guards, Fars, embarked on their own campaign, singling out Iranian social scientists by name for attack. The aforementioned Hossein Bashirieh was defamed as a theoretician of democratization through terror. Hardliners claimed that, when in power, secular reformists under Bashirieh’s influence had planned the formation of guerrilla groups to foment “paramilitary riots” and carry out “black assassinations.” Around the same time, the political philosopher Saeed Hajjarian was compelled to confess in a Stalinist-style show trial to the so-called mistake of applying Max Weber’s ideas to the Iranian political system. “Theories of the human sciences contain ideological weapons that can be converted into strategies and tactics and mustered against the country’s official ideology,” said Hajjarian in court. But not to fear, he hastened to add, for such “weapons” in Weber’s thought apply only in countries where “people are treated as subjects and deprived of all citizenship rights” — and no one would accuse the Islamic Republic of being such a place. [11] During the press campaign, I even found myself under fire when the master’s thesis in political science I had written in 2007 was mentioned by a national news agency as part of a plot behind the 2009 protests. [12]

The propaganda following Khamenei’s speech corresponded with the overhaul of university faculties. At the Faculty of Law and Political Science at the University of Tehran, 24 professors were fired or forced to retire, and 37 new faculty members were hired in their place. Recognizable names in this cohort are Mohammad Jamshidi, a close confidant of Saeed Jalili, the hardliners’ 2013 presidential candidate; Majid Hosseini, a top aide to Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, the conservative mayor of Tehran; and Saeed Haji-Naseri, a former member of the Student Basij. Most of these hires have weak academic credentials and were appointed directly by the dean rather than after a departmental vote.

The same pattern prevailed at major social science departments throughout the country. Among the fired professors were such important intellectuals as Nasser Katouzian, Ali Azmayesh, Jamsheed Momtazi and Mohsen Rahami (University of Tehran, law); Abdol-Karim Soroush and Mohsen Kadivar (Iran’s Institute of Philosophy); Javad Kashi, Morteza Mardiha and Mohammad Mohammadi Gorgani (Allameh Tabataba’i University, law and political science); Parviz Piran (Allameh Tabataba’i University, sociology); Mohammad Sattarifar, Ali Akbar Arabmazar, Mohammad Maljoo and Ahmad Meydari (Allameh Tabataba’i University, economics); Gholamhosein Zargarinejad and Ehsan Shariati (University of Tehran, philosophy); and Fatemeh Sadeghi (Azad University-Karaj, political science). (Maljoo, Meydari and Sadeghi have published articles in Middle East Report.)

Departmental Dilemmas

Although the established merit-based rules were violated in these cases, it will be difficult for the Rouhani administration to annul the new hires without violating the rules again. Moreover, the latest recruits have changed the composition of departments to the extent that most are in favor of retaining the conservative faculty members, however low their academic profiles might be.

The example of Iran’s Research Institute of Philosophy is illustrative. The prominent Islamic philosopher Seyyed Hossein Nasr founded this academy in 1974. After the 1979 revolution, the Institute was closed for a time, but later reopened with Gholam Reza Avani as head. Avani is a respected professor of philosophy who acquired his Ph.D. in 1976 from the University of Tehran under the supervision of Nasr. He is proficient in Arabic, English and French, and familiar with Latin and ancient Greek. He has published many books and articles dealing with both Western and Islamic philosophy in major academic publications in Iran. In August 2011, however, Sciences Minister Daneshjoo dismissed Avani and appointed Abdol-Hossein Khosropanah to take his place. Khosropanah, 45 years old at the time, has no regular academic degree but a Ph.D. equivalent from his studies at the Qom seminary. At the time, he was chair of the philosophy department in one of the think tanks under the authority of Ayatollah Khamenei, the Research Institute for Islamic Culture and Thought. Most students of philosophy in Iran were shocked and appalled by the choice. A philosophy professor who was later sacked posted on his blog about the poor quality of Khosropanah’s writings, which are rife with grammatical errors, nonsensical passages, wrongly defined terms and tautological statements about basic concepts such as epistemology and ontology. [13]

If the Rouhani administration goes back to Khatami’s practice, and gives back autonomy to university departments, it is possible that the faculty hired in the Ahmadinejad era, with voting majorities, will affirm all the bad decisions — and this time with the semblance of being in accordance with established procedures in academia.

The hardliners in Iran see the universities as a bastion of dissent from their vision for the country. They realize, at the same time, that higher education is now a prized credential among the expanding post-revolutionary middle class. Their efforts to replace autonomous faculty with loyalists are not just a renewed Cultural Revolution but also an attempt to weaken or capture this vital social force. The reinstatement of expelled professors and students under Rouhani is a counter-blow, but one whose impact will be blunted if the hires under Ahmadinejad cannot be reevaluated by scholarly standards rather than ideological purity. There are many obstacles to the project of restoring the Iranian university as a site of independent thought.


[1] Etemad, January 20, 2014.
[2] Quoted in Azadeh Niknam, “The Islamization of Law in Iran: A Time of Disenchantment,” Middle East Report 212 (Fall 1999).
[3] The text of the letter, “Do Bayaniye-ye Jame’e-ye Hoquq-danan-e Iran dar Mored-e Layehe-ye Qesas,” is preserved at the website of the Borumand Foundation.
[4] Asr-e Iran, October 16, 2011.
[5] Islamic Student News Agency, August 26, 2012.
[6] Asef Bayat, Life as Politics: How Ordinary People Change the Middle East (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2009).
[7] Fars, October 2, 2009.
[8] Jahan News, September 23, 2009.
[9] Radio Farda, March 6, 2010.
[10] Radio Farda. August 10, 2010.
[11] Charles Kurzman. “Reading Weber in Tehran,” Chronicle of Higher Education, November 1, 2009.
[12] Islamic Republic News Agency, October 19, 2009.
[13] Kaveh Ladjevardi, “Dar Movajjah-sazi-ye Barkhi Bavar-ha-ye Ma,” Noskhe-ye Qabel-e Enteshar (October 2011); Kaveh Ladjevardi, “Jan Bakht va Teror Shod: Shomare-ye Akhir-e Nashriye-i Elmi Pajuheshi,” Noskhe-ye Qabel-e Enteshar (November 2012).

How to cite this article:

Mohammad Ali Kadivar "The Battle Over Higher Education in Iran," Middle East Report Online, February 20, 2014.

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