n what the New York Times called “an elaborate act of communal self-preservation,” the Bahá’í community in 1987 established its own higher education program to meet the educational needs of young people who had been systematically denied access to higher education by the Iranian government.
Over the years, the program evolved into a full-fledged university, known as the Bahá’í Institute for Higher Education (BIHE).
By mid-1998, the Institute had an enrollment of some 900 students, a faculty of more than 150 first-rate academics and instructors, and complete course offerings in ten subject areas. It operated largely by correspondence, with small classes in private homes, but also had a small “infrastructure” composed of various classrooms, laboratories and libraries scattered throughout Iran. Yet its offerings were so well regarded that a handful of early graduates had managed to win admission to top-flight graduate schools overseas.
Then, in 1998, agents of the Iranian government staged a series of sweeping raids in late September and early October, arresting at least 36 members of the BIHE’s faculty and staff and confiscating much of its equipment and records, which were located in over 500 homes. Those who were arrested, many of whom have now been released, were asked to sign a document declaring that BIHE had ceased to exist and that they would no longer cooperate with it. The detainees refused to sign any such declaration.
Indeed, the Bahá’í community’s efforts to provide its young people with a higher education have continued — as have the government’s attempts to shut down those efforts.
Early in 2001, three classrooms used by members of the community were seized in another strike against the Bahá’ís’ right to education. In 2002, one of the instructors who was teaching Bahá’í youth in the city of Qaim-Shahr was summoned to the Intelligence agency. He was ordered to identify himself and bring, for submission to the authorities, all of his booklets and textbooks.
On 19 July 2002, as the Institute was holding qualifying examinations across the country, Iranian Revolutionary Guards entered three sites in the city of Shiraz, where they videotaped the proceedings, interviewed several students, and confiscated 25 examination papers. In Mashhad, on the same day, the Guards entered all five of the district examinations and confiscated all of the examination papers, along with Bahá’í books.
“The goal of the government of Iran is to discontinue the [Bahá’í] University and silence this educational and spiritual movement,” said one Bahá’í who was closely involved in the University’s operation and did not wish to be named after the 1998 raids. “They claim that a Bahá’í has no right to develop and must not have higher education, so that the community may become degraded.”
The establishment of the BIHE stands as a remarkably creative — and entirely non-violent — response to the on-going effort of the Iranian government to deprive Iranian Bahá’í youth of access to higher education.
Until the government raids at the end of September 1998, the Institute offered Bachelor’s degrees in ten subject areas: applied chemistry, biology, dental science, pharmacological science, civil engineering, computer science, psychology, law, literature and accounting. And within these subject areas, which were administered by five university “departments,” the Institute was able to offer more than 200 distinct courses each term. In the beginning, courses were based on correspondence lessons developed by Indiana University, which was one of the first institutions in the West to recognize the Bahá’í Institute for Higher Education. Later on, course offerings were developed internally.
The teaching was done principally via correspondence, or, for specialized scientific and technical courses and in other special cases, in small-group classes that were usually held in private homes.
“At the beginning, the students did not even know the names of their professors,” said one BIHE professor shortly after the 1998 raids. “Even after three or four years, the students did not know the names of their professors. They had never seen them. Because it was very dangerous. If somebody knows the name of them, maybe they would tell their friends. So it was all correspondence at the beginning of this plan.”
Over time, however, the Institute was able to establish a few laboratories, operated in privately owned commercial buildings in and around Tehran, for computer science, physics, dental science, pharmacology, applied chemistry and language study. The operations of these laboratories were kept prudently quiet, with students cautioned not to come and go in large groups that might give the authorities a reason to object.
At its peak, the Institute had more than 150 faculty members. Approximately 25 or 30 were professors who were fired from government-run universities after the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Other faculty members included doctors, dentists, lawyers and engineers who gave of their time to teach students. The majority were educated in Iran, but a good number have degrees from universities in the West including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Columbia University, the University of California at Berkeley and the Sorbonne. None of the Bahá’í faculty members were paid for their time; all gave it freely as a form of community service.
“These youth are very precious people,” said a faculty member, explaining why they were willing to take such risks, without monetary remuneration, to establish the Institute. “We all care about them. They have been through tests and trials and they had no hope. They have been deprived of many things so if there was any chance for us to get something better for them, we did it.”
Each of the five departments drew not only on these volunteer professors for their academic expertise but also on a small and anonymous group of Bahá’í academics in North America, Europe and Australia who sent in the latest textbooks and research papers, occasionally made visits to Iran as guest lecturers, and otherwise provided instructional and technical support.
Entrance examinations for the BIHE were required, and they established high standards. Of the roughly 1,500 students who applied for admission in its first year of operation, 250 were accepted for the first semester of study. By 1996, a total of 600 students had enrolled in the Bahá’í Institute of Higher Education. By 1998, approximately 900 students were enrolled.
Among the indications of the Institute’s surprisingly high academic standards and instructional level was the success that a number of Institute graduates had in gaining admission to graduate schools outside Iran, including major universities in the United States and Canada. It should be added that some Institute graduates and students outside Iran have also had a difficult time getting their credits recognized — a fact of life for Institute graduates that stems directly from the Iranian government’s policy of blocking their access to education and its failure to recognize the Institute officially.
As noted, the Institute functioned basically like a correspondence school. And even its early years were marked by a certain level of harassment. At first, students and faculty sent homework assignments and lessons back and forth via the state-run postal system. But the packages often did not arrive and were assumed to have been intercepted as part of the government’s attempt to interfere with Bahá’í education. Later the Institute resorted to its own delivery service, making extensive use of young people on motorbikes.
Since professors could not deliver lectures openly, they prepared their own written notes and compiled text books for distribution to the students. Some of these texts were based on the latest Western research. One student in civil engineering, for example, was studying the construction of earthquake-proof earthen silos — and the Institute’s overseas contacts were able to get for him some of the latest research on this topic from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
The entire operation relied heavily on the use of extensive photocopying, and one of the biggest blows in the 1998 raids was the confiscation of several large photocopying units.
The Institute system also featured a network of special depository libraries around the country. Numbering more than 45, these libraries existed in the private homes of Bahá’ís and enabled students in each district to obtain access to the necessary textbooks for the courses. Some of these libraries were also seized in the 1998 raids.
Before the raids, as Institute officials began to feel increasing confidence about their operation, they started to organize many group classes along with independent study in private homes. The Institute also began to publish sophisticated course catalogues, listing not only course offerings but the qualifications of the faculty members. Through the international network of Bahá’í communities worldwide, the Institute also began to establish the means by which its graduates might become fully recognized by other institutions of higher education outside Iran.