Professors protest against regime’s campus interference

In an unusual act of defiance, all but one member of the council of a professors’ union at a top Iranian university have resigned in protest at political interference in university matters and mounting repression by the regime.

The en masse resignations, which took place over the course of two days, are an indication of how far relations between universities and the state have deteriorated since protests erupted a year ago, triggered by the death in police custody of Mahsa Amini, a young woman allegedly accused of wearing her headdress incorrectly.

The collective action by professors reportedly led to the dissolution of the faculty council, an academic union at Sharif University of Technology, Tehran.

The resignations on 30 September and 1 October of six out of seven elected council members opens the way for ‘ultra-conservatives’ to dictate faculty matters, and points to the likelihood of increased government interference in university matters, experts said.

According to an academic from another university in Tehran, speaking on condition of anonymity, the actions of the Sharif University professors’ union were “a small but important glimmer of light in the pushback against government-imposed restrictions on campus and blatant political and security interference in universities. Professors are normally reluctant to speak out at all”.

In recent weeks a purge of those university professors regarded as supportive of campus protests and student demands has taken place. This is perceived by many as a process aimed at clearing universities of independent voices and their likely replacement by more regime-friendly conservatives.

The faculty council resignations came just ahead of the anniversary of an attack on Sharif University on 2 October 2022 by security forces who surrounded the university where approximately 200 students were gathered for a sit-in. Students who tried to leave the building through an underground parking area were beaten and more than 40 were arrested on that day and the next.

Secretary of faculty council summoned

On the day he resigned as secretary of the Sharif University faculty council, Vahid Karimipour, a professor of quantum physics at the university, published an open letter on his Telegram account saying that 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.”

He wrote: “This council was formed with the aim of optimising the use of faculty opinions and assisting university management in better administration of university affairs. From the beginning, all members of this council believed they could fulfil this duty through constructive negotiations with university management and within the university.”

Karimipour said that he had not expected that “carrying out this university duty” would result in a summons from an external entity to discuss university issues.

Summoning people for a ‘conversation’ is a means used by various intelligence organs in Iran to warn those summoned, and has been derided by academics as intimidation.

Two other council members, Saeed Shahrokhyan, a professor in the Department of Chemistry, and Farzin Jafarzadeh, a professor in the Department of Civil Engineering, also resigned from the faculty council within hours of Karimipour’s resignation stating a “lack of suitable atmosphere and conditions” to carry out the duties of the academic union.

They also cited their need for calmness and sufficient concentration to carry out education and research work – a reference to ongoing political pressures within universities.

Their resignations were quickly followed by the resignation from the council of Sohrab Rahvar, a professor in the Department of Physics, and Ali Abedian, an associate professor in the Department of Aerospace Engineering. Abedian referred to a “low tolerance level” by the university authorities of statements from the professors’ union.

The union had been raising the plight of Sharif University professor Ali Sharifi Zarchi who was sacked by the university in August. Zarchi had also previously been summoned by security authorities.

The summoning of students

Students at Sharif University and other universities in the Iranian capital such as Tehran University and Amirkabir University of Technology (formerly Tehran Polytechnic) – all centres of major campus protests last year – have also been summoned to the Ministry of Intelligence, student groups from these universities reported.

At Amirkabir University student groups reported the summoning of at least 10 students from the three universities, which occurred “less than a day after the Ministry of Intelligence had summoned certain professors”.

Amirkabir students also reported that agents in informal uniforms were patrolling the campus as the academic year commenced.

Universities reopened at the end of September, with heightened security measures in place and university administrations sending out circulars threatening women students who do not wear the hijab or act “within the norms” with retaliation, including barring their entry to the campus.

Students have shared photos and videos on social media showing the use of face recognition technologies which are used to identify them before they are allowed to use certain campus facilities such as canteens.

Hacked information

In August an Iranian dissident hacker group Ghiyam ta Sarnegouni (Uprising till Overthrow) announced it had accessed over 500 servers of Iran’s Ministry of Science including classified documents on universities and protests. The ministry said last month its website had been temporarily shut down to “investigate” the hack.

In a classified letter to President Ebrahim Raisi that the hackers claimed to have accessed, Higher Education Minister Mohammad-Ali Zolfigol allegedly noted that some university chancellors in 2022 were reluctant to cooperate with security bodies in suppressing students and that some academic officials who had signed statements against such measures had been fired.

Zolfigol is alleged to have said in the letter that Sharif University of Technology “had come completely under the control of rioters” and added that the National Security Council (NSC) and Supreme National Security Council (SNSC) officially demanded the chancellor of the university be sacked.

Sharif University required “fundamental changes” without which it could not be controlled if there was more unrest in the future, the minister allegedly said in his letter to the president.

Among other documents said to be obtained by the hacker group, which were published in mid-August, was a letter from Interior Minister Ahmad Vahidi allegedly indicating that the government had secretly started the process of recruiting 15,000 university faculty members whose views align with the Islamic Republic.

The sacked Sharif University academic Zarchi had also referred to this document, criticising it and the possible effect on university standards.

Research by the United States-based Center for Human Rights in Iran said that in the past year at least 26 university professors have “faced consequences” for their purported support of campus protests, with at least 11 fired in the month of August, just weeks before anniversary of the death of Amini on 16 September 2022. Other rights groups report far higher figures.