IRAN: Probe into 'political cleansing' of professors

Iran's parliament has announced it will investigate the retirement of university professors, amid opposition accusations that the increase in forced departures amounted to the 'political cleansing' of universities. Even government officials are expressing concerns at the erosion of the country's academic expertise.

Hojatoleslam Alireza Salimi, a member of the parliamentary Education and Research Commission, said on 6 September: "Parliament is trying to pursue this topic, through a motion about the retirement of professors."

In remarks carried by the official Mehr news agency, he said the review of professorial retirements would be carried out in an atmosphere of calm to allay the concerns of scientific groups.

"We discussed the issue about the retirement of professors in the [parliament's] education commission, and in a meeting with the minister this topic will be analysed more carefully and after that a motion will be drafted," Salimi said in parliament.

"Arrangements should be made so that a professor of retirement age who does not intend to retire and who does not have health problems can continue with scientific activities, as the protection of [professors] is a good use of scientific resources, and will have positive outcomes."

Salimi added: "The discussion about the retirement of this group is a sensitive and delicate one which the science ministry should enter with caution."

Analysts said the announcement was an attempt to silence critics who have become more vocal about the politically motivated removal of eminent professors, often disguised as 'retirements'.

Mohammad-Ali Bozorgvari, a member of the parliament's Cultural Commission, last week called for a parliamentary review saying: "The retirement of expert academics in the current manner should be stopped.

"From my experience working in the ministries of science research and technology and of education, I regard the current manner of retiring university professors as unscientific and unexamined and I do not regard this to be appropriate for the academic community of the country."

He called on the Ministry of Education to reconsider the early retirement of experienced professors and teachers, saying professors could serve for 35 or even 40 years.

Just days before Mohammad Hossein Moghimi, an administrative official of Tehran University, said some 40 faculty members had been retired since March. But he insisted: "All these individuals have been retired according to the relevant laws and regulations, and no illegal action has taken place in this respect."

However, Minister of Science and Technology Kamran Daneshjou said in March: "The university is not the place for academics who engage in activism against the regime." He said explicitly that professors who did not share the views of the regime would be dismissed.

Science professors in particular had to "accept the revolution as their guide" even if this contradicted their research, the minister said.

The New York-based International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran believes some 50 prominent faculty members who side with the reformist Green movement have been forced to retire over the past year.

The sudden removal in August of Yousef Sobouti, a prominent physicist and head of Iran's elite Institute for Advanced Studies in Basic Sciences in Zanjan province, West of Tehran, sparked a major protest by students and academics, including an unprecedented written protest to Daneshjou by 15 Zanjan provincial representatives.

Zanjan officials said Sobouti, forced out on his 78th birthday, had been a physicist for 45 years and was not ready to retire as he had requested to stay in his position for another six months to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the founding of IASBS early next year.

In an effort to pre-empt public anger, Daneshjou offered Sobouti several nominal posts within the Ministry of Higher Education, which the professor declined.

Mahboubeh Mobasheri, president of Al Zahra University in Tehran, announced the dismissal in July of 13 members of its faculty citing their "academic decline".

Mobasheri said in official reports that in addition to these 13 dismissed faculty members, "those members of the faculty who have remained associate professors for a long period and not achieved promotion, will also be dismissed."

Last week, four members of Shahid Beheshti University and five from Khajeh Nassir University were dismissed for similar reasons, according to the Mehr news agency.

"There are a number of cases documented in the last few months of professors forced into retirement or fired," said Saeed Paivandi, professor of sociology at the University of Paris and an expert on the Iranian education system.

But he said this was only a small and open manifestation of a much bigger problem where professors were coming under huge political pressure. "Often they say you can stay [at the university] only on condition you do not criticise the political regime," Paivandi said.

He said that when the ministry did not want to prolong the service of professors who were non-religious it was "using this administrative means to force universities. It is not the university that decides who retires, it is the ministry. The universities have no autonomy."

However Paivandi said it did not amount to 'political cleansing' compared to the 1980s when 40% of professors were forced out. "They can't do that now, because they do not have replacements," Paivandi said. "But because of the influence of professors on students, and their importance for scientific research, the government's preferred approach is to silence them."