Campus persecutions ramp up as protest anniversary looms

Concerned about a resurgence in protest action in the run-up to the anniversary of 23-year-old Mahsa Amini’s death in police custody on 16 September, the Iranian authorities’ focus has been firmly fixed on the country’s universities where ‘mass purges’ of academics are said to be taking place and students face ongoing persecution.

The death of Amini, who was arrested in Tehran on 14 September 2022 for improperly wearing her headscarf, unleashed protests in many cities and on university campuses where women students defiantly removed their headscarves, which are required by law to be worn in public.

The protests were followed by a government crackdown and the arrest of students and dissident activists. There followed imprisonment, torture, executions and a purge on campuses that includes the ongoing sacking of professors who tried to support students in what became known as the ‘Women, Life, Freedom’ movement.

Dismissals of professors intensified during August 2023, student and academic groups said.

Campus purges, and the authorities’ fears about further student protests to commemorate the anniversary of Amini’s death, appear to have already led some universities to postpone the start of the new academic term due to commence on 25 September. Several institutions are said to have announced online classes only while others have pushed back the start to the second week of October.

“Recently, numerous professors have been ousted from leading universities like Sharif and Tehran. Leaked documents from [Ebrahim] Raisi’s presidential office highlight concerns about ‘the provocative role’ of a number of professors to create student protest and destructive actions,” said Alireza Jafarzadeh, deputy director of the Washington office of the National Council of Resistance of Iran, an exile group.

These actions highlight the regime’s fear of academic institutions, the vanguard of anti-dictatorial movements in Iran, according to Jafarzadeh.

Almost a dozen sackings in August

In late August almost a dozen university professors from Sharif, Allameh Tabatabai and Tehran universities were sacked or suspended, with some posting their dismissal letters on social media. In April, nine professors from Tehran Azad University who had openly criticised the regime’s policies were forced into early retirement.

Two professors, Hamideh Khademi and Ameneh Aali, from Allameh Tabatabai University in Tehran, were dismissed in recent weeks via phone call, while the Student Guild Council of Iran reported the dismissal of seven professors from the Faculty of Literature at the University of Tehran.

Iran’s United Students council noted that during the protests the two professors “not only opposed the suppression of students but also supported detained and suspended students”.

Aali, a psychology professor at Allameh Tabatabai University, told the Didban-e Iran news website in early September that she was informed of her expulsion from the university over the phone, without proper administrative procedures, and was not given a reason for the termination of her contract.

She said she believed she had been dismissed because she had signed statements last year supporting protesting students, participated in the campus sit-ins and objected to the suspension of students. In a defiant open letter after her dismissal, she said: “we teachers cannot and must not be obedient and followers of the government. We are the backbone of the nation and we must serve its people”.

On August 27, the state-run Roydad newspaper wrote: “The expulsion of professors is taking on a fast pace and all professors whom officials consider as critics will be expelled on various pretexts, including retirement and lack of academic achievement.”

The same day the state-run Entekhab newspaper said: “purification (of universities) is going fast”.

Controversially, Dr Seyed Mohammad Moghimi, president of the University of Tehran, claimed in an interview with the semi-official ILNA news agency on 3 September that during his “two-year tenure as the university’s manager, we have not had a single case of professor expulsion”.

Referring only to expulsions, he did not explain the removal, termination of all collaboration, or forced retirement of professors. However, he noted there had been suspensions of professors at his university, noting that the cases of two suspended professors had been referred to judicial authorities for review.

Criticism of dismissals

The international Youth Association of Iran, Afra, said via Twitter/X on 29 August that “the expulsion of professors from universities solely for the purpose of political cleansing, is indicative of the government’s apprehension”. It said such actions undermined the integrity of academic institutions.

In a statement, the Union of University Professors, referring to the widespread dismissal of professors, wrote: “hundreds of cases in this regard are currently suspended in various universities under the pretext of signing a statement or commenting [by the professors], and several faculty members in various universities have either been expelled or are on the verge of being expelled”.

The union called on the authorities to refrain from summoning professors and students to humiliating interrogation sessions and warned that the “profuse meddling” of security bodies in academic affairs would mean the gradual decline of universities.

The union, led by former reformist vice-president of Iran Mohammad Reza Aref, called on the interior ministry to “focus on improving the country's security instead of interfering in the affairs of universities”.

Iran’s interior ministry released a statement on 28 August calling criticism of the expulsion of academics “media propaganda”. It said the higher education ministry had taken “revolutionary action” in removing professors “carried out within the law”.

The interior ministry statement also accused the sacked professors of “political immorality” and “showing off” to the media, referring to their “anti-national” views.

Loyalist appointments

More public outrage followed after Ali Sharifi-Zarchi, a highly respected professor of bioinformatics and artificial intelligence at Sharif University of Technology, announced via Twitter/X he had been expelled by the university. He too had supported protesting students.

The university then invited three hardline figures, including conservative television presenters Amir Hossein Sabeti and Abbas Mozoun, to teach Islamic subjects at the university. Sabeti has defended his university appointment.

Ali Akbar Salehi, a professor at Sharif University of Technology, said when universities send people of poor academic quality to teach classes, “they no longer can be called universities.”

Others said such moves to replace sacked professors with unqualified people would damage the country’s academic reputation internationally.

Arrests and threats to students

Arrests of and threats to students have also been stepped up, according to reports.

Threats include suspensions if students do not adhere to the dress code in class, including wearing the headscarf.

Daneshpajoohan Pishro, an independent organisation of students, said in a statement on 28 August: “The majority of such arrests stem from their [the regime’s] fear in the run-up to the anniversary of the revolution and the murder of our bellowed Mahsa [Amini]. The days ahead are making the government very anxious about a widespread and public resurgence.” The group called for a “strong response” in organising a nationwide protest anniversary.

Other student organisations said from early August onwards, pressure on students had been stepped up, with phone calls from university authorities pressing students not to resume protests and threatening them with arrest and prosecution. Other students have been summoned and subjected to long interrogation sessions.

On 30 August, students at Shiraz University said via social media: “The new semester has not yet begun, but the repression continues,” and pointed out that notices appear as soon as they log onto the university website, which tell them to dress and behave according to the rules.

They also referred to emails from the so-called ‘Shiraz University Academic Affairs Protection Committee’ sent to female students which stated: “According to the latest reports you have not complied with the rules of clothing, social behaviour and social affairs”, and called on them to comply with the rules.