The Chronicle of Higher Education, November 13, 1998

36 Professors Arrested in Iranian Crackdown on Underground Baha'i University

by Burton Bollag

The Baha'i Open University in Iran, which for the past decade has offered classes in private homes and offices across the country, remained closed last week following a series of raids by Iranian authorities in October. Officials of the Baha'i faith in the United States said that at least 36 faculty members were arrested in the raids, and four were still being held.

According to the Baha'i officials, 532 homes were raided by security officers under the direction of Iran's Ministry of Information, a government intelligence agency. They confiscated computers and other equipment, as well as literature and files. The faculty members who were arrested were asked to sign a declaration stating that the institution no longer existed. All reportedly refused to do so.

The Iranian authorities in Teheran have declined to comment on the raids. Iranian diplomatic representatives in Geneva and at the United Nations also have not responded to requests for comment.

Since Iran's 1979 Islamic revolution, the authorities have taken a hostile and often repressive approach to the country's 300,000 Baha'i followers. Baha'is say Iran's latest moves may be part of a power struggle between conservatives and the country's moderate president, Muhammad Khatami, who was elected last year.

Although Iran recognizes the rights of Christians, Jews, and members of other minority religions, the country's Islamic establishment considers the Baha'i faith, which was founded in Iran int he last century, to be heretical and not a legitimate religion.

In response to limits placed on their educational rights in Iran, members of the Baha'i in 1987 established the Baha'i Institute for Higher Education, which became known as the Baha'i Open University.

A secret government memorandum, drawn up by the Supreme Revolutionary Cultural Council in 1991, spelled out plans to marginalize Iran's Baha'i followers. It called for Baha'i children to be given a strong Islamic education and said Baha'is should be barred from the country's universities. The document was made public in 1993 by the United Nations Special Representative investigating human-rights abuses in Iran, Reynaldo Galindo Pohl.

This year, the Baha'i Open University had an enrollment of more than 900 students, and a staff of some 150 volunteer academics. Among them are many university professors who were ousted from posts in Iran's state-run university system following the Islamic revolution.

Courses at the university, which is essentially an underground institution, are taught via correspondence as well as in private homes. The university also operates several science laboratories, discreetly located in rented spaces in Teheran, and 45 specialized libraries, housed in private residences across the country.

Although not recognized by the Iranian educational authorities, the Baha'i university offers bachelor's degrees in 10 disciplines: accounting, applied chemistry, biology, civil engineering, computer science, dental science, law, literature, pharmacology, and psychology.

Nader Saiedi, an associate professor of sociology at Carleton College, is one of many Iranian Baha'i academics teaching in the United States who have been helping the institution. He has produced Persian-language curricula for use by the Baha'i Open University, and has provided a steady supply of up-to-date literature. He says the quality of the open university "is above the norm of higher education in Iran."

Because the degrees awarded by the Baha'i Open University are not officially recognized, graduates generally find work in the private sector. Some have gone on to do graduate work at U.S. institutions.

© Copyright 1998 Chronicle of Higher Education

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