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Restoring relationships in higher education

Last month the Institute of International Education, or IIE, led a delegation of US higher education leaders to Iran, meeting with counterparts from Iranian universities and research institutes in Tehran, Shiraz and Isfahan, to explore how to reopen and expand educational and scientific dialogue.

After almost a year of planning and preparation, our delegation opened a historic new chapter in educational relations and people-to-people exchanges between the United States and Iran.

While there is still much to learn about Iran today, one thing is clear from our visit: there are tremendous opportunities and a strong desire in both the United States and Iran to expand academic collaboration between our two countries.

A multi-generational foundation

The IIE delegation included five public and private institutions: Ball State University; Pitzer College; Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey; the University of Southern California; and Wayne State University, as well as representatives from IIE’s Center for International Partnerships in Higher Education.

Our group was warmly received by high-level officials from many of Iran’s top universities and research institutes, including the University of Tehran, Shahid Beheshti University, Sharif University of Technology and the Iranian Research Organisation for Science and Technology, or IROST, most of whom were quite well-versed in the many facets of the US higher education system.

The majority of academics and university administrators we met in Iran had been educated in the United States, and many had children that are studying in the United States today.

According to the 2014 Open Doors Report on International Educational Exchange, published by the IIE with support from the US Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, there were nearly 10,200 Iranian students and close to 1,400 Iranian scholars at US colleges and universities in 2013-14.

The connection between Iranian faculty and American universities is not new. It is notable that Iran was the leading sender of international students to the United States in the 1970s, with more than 51,000 students enrolled in US universities in 1979.

At Allemeh Tabataba’i University in Tehran, for example, the rector brought together a number of faculty members who had earned multiple degrees at institutions such as the University of Texas at Austin, Florida State University, University of Tennessee-Knoxville, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Wichita State University, Florida International University, University of Missouri and the University of Illinois.

Their degrees ranged from statistics, theoretical economics, financial management, industrial management and accounting to counselling and educational planning. Many Iranians who had received PhDs in the United States subsequently returned to Iranian universities to start new doctoral level programmes in their respective disciplines.

This rich history of educational exchange between the two countries provides a particularly strong foundation for new and sustained educational cooperation.

Areas for potential academic partnerships

Most institutions we visited have developed links with higher education institutions abroad, especially with European universities. However, almost none had formal relationships with US institutions. Going forward, universities in both countries are looking to form partnerships to enable the exchange of students and faculty and advance joint research.

The first step will be to look at past memoranda of understanding, or MoUs, that have been lying dormant, some for 40 plus years, and determine which ones can or ought to be revived, and to look at current faculty interest for new areas of engagement.

The Iranian institutions we met with and our US delegates expressed particular interest in collaborating around research areas of mutual interest, including nanotechnology, stem cell research, medical and health sciences and other fields.

Despite the international sanctions, the facilities and the knowledge base at the institutions we visited seemed particularly well developed. Another surprise to the US delegation was how many women there were among the science faculty and in the student body.

Especially noteworthy is that almost every Iranian institution expressed interest in conducting joint research in the areas of water conservation and environmental management. With years of declining precipitation and increases in waste and contamination, water shortage is a paramount issue in Iran.

The United States is facing similar challenges, especially related to the long-term water shortages affecting the Colorado River basin and thus most states west of the Rocky Mountains. At a minimum, more collaboration and research on these issues and others related to environmental sciences and climate change will be very valuable for both countries.

Another potential area of collaboration was related to a scholarship opportunity that is offered by the Iranian government to support Iranian PhD students to spend six to nine months in another country while working on their dissertation research.

Approximately one third of the 1,500 scholarship students are currently doing their research in the United States, but there is potential to use this scholarship as a means to build closer relationships by centralising the coordination of the scholarships and focusing on key areas of mutual interest.

While a few US faculty members and students have reportedly visited Iran to participate in conferences or workshops, the 2014 Open Doors statistics show that no US higher education institution reported sending students to Iran for academic credit.

Despite this, our delegates agreed that there are significant opportunities for American students and faculty, and they would be warmly welcomed if they were to come to Iran.

We were especially pleased to learn about the widespread interest among Iranian universities in hosting American students and the interest of the US delegates in providing opportunities for their students to study in Iran. The semester-based credit system makes Iranian universities especially promising for US study abroad students.

Several institutions, including the University of Tehran and Shiraz University, expressed interest in developing short-term study abroad opportunities for US students that would include cultural and language immersion in addition to the academic programme.

In the meantime, the delegates noted that there is a great need for more Iranian studies programmes in the United States, and part of this gap could be met in the short term by drawing on the expertise of visiting Iranian faculty and advanced doctoral students.

US and Iranian higher education officials agree that the study of Iran has not been well defined; it is not effectively addressed in Arab studies or Middle Eastern studies programmes since Iran is neither an Arab country nor geographically part of the Middle East.

Developing Iranian studies programmes, in collaboration with partners in Iran, would contribute to Americans’ knowledge of the area while also helping build the pipeline for US study abroad to Iran.

Academic freedom is of particular concern to higher education institutions in the US and around the world. President Hassan Rouhani and others have called for more academic freedom in Iran's universities in order to encourage innovation and tolerance. More engagement with international academic institutions would certainly help universities to show their progress and shed light on any remaining restrictions or concerns.

While there is much work to be done in the coming months and years, we hope our efforts will serve as a catalyst for sustained higher education partnerships that will encourage cooperation and understanding between the United States and Iran.

Daniel Obst is deputy vice-president for international partnerships at the Institute of International Education in the US.
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