Amid growing pressure from Iran’s regime to silence academia, all but one member of the council of the professors’ union in a top university have resigned in protest.
Resignations began when Vahid Karimipour, a professor of quantum physics at Sharif University of Technology (SUT), published an open letter to say he had been summoned by an “external body” to “discuss” matters related to the university.
“I’d welcome any such discussion in my office,” he wrote, “but I find the order to appear in an institution outside the university is disrespectful to all professors.”
Karimipour did not offer any more details. But to call in people for a ‘conversation’ is standard practice for various intelligence organs in Iran. It is intended and understood as a threat, which may be followed by detainment.
Shortly after Karimipour published his resignation letter, four other members of the elected council resigned. Another member had been sacked by the university a few weeks ago, leaving the seven-member council with only one member standing.
The mass resignation is remarkable since academics in Iran tend to not express political opinions. Higher education institutions in Iran are state owned and state controlled. Professors, even tenured and well established, are not safe in their jobs as is customary in most other countries.
“You should think of professors as government employees… many are on fixed-term contracts these days, which makes their position all the more precarious,” a faculty member at SUT told Iran International on condition of anonymity.
At least 110 academics have been sacked from universities across Iran in the last year.
“They call it khales-sazi,” the SUT professor said, “which could be translated as purification or refinement. But it should be translated as cleansing, as in ethnic cleansing, because that’s what it is: to force out the people you don’t like and replace them with your own people. That’s what they used to call it, in fact, right after the revolution.”
‘Cleansing’ universities began almost immediately after Islamists took power in 1979. It was part of a much larger project by the revolution’s leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and his aides to stifle freedom of expression and establish a monopoly of the ‘narrative’, be it social, historical, artistic, or even economic.
They called it the Cultural Revolution.
In the four decades since then, hundreds of academics have been sacked in waves of purges that rose and subsided but never stopped.
The latest wave seems to be a direct result of the 2022 protests, which began in mid-September 2022, coinciding with the beginning of the academic year. Universities became a hotbed of protests with students refusing to attend classes and chanting against the regime.
Security and intelligence organs hit back with mass arrests and brutal force. SUT was particularly targeted and bruised badly.
On October 2, 2022, security forces and thugs layed siege to the campus. Earlier that day, a video had gone viral of a group of SUT students chanting a harsh, explicit slogan against the Supreme Leader. Having blocked all exits, the thugs attacked students, injuring and arresting dozens.
This year, to prevent student rallies on the anniversary of the protests, the authorities took a variety of measures, adding guards, installing cameras, summoning and suspending students, even changing the academic calendar to ensure campus was not busy in mid-September.
The ‘cleansing’ of professors is yet another attempt to ‘tame’ the campuses. It has become so widespread and so crass that a cautious figure like the former president Hassa Rouhani has come out against it.
On the other hand, however, hardline lawmakers have demanded even harsher measures against academics who step “out of line.”
“A member of faculty is employed to advance the system’s objectives,” said Fereydoon Abbasi, a hardline MP who once headed Iran’s Atomic Energy Organisation, “a professor has to teach students according to the system’s objectives and conduct research on topics that the system wants.”
With such sentiments prevalent among the Islamic Republic’s officials, it is likely that many more members of faculty will be sacked in the next few weeks, often on false administrative pretenses.
“The bottom line is, they don’t like universities,” the SUT professor concluded, “they don’t like the spirit, the liveliness, the curiosity. University is where you learn, or you are supposed to learn, to think critically. And critical thinking is anathema to the Islamic Republic.”