My recent trip to Iran as part of an academic delegation has confirmed my belief that while tensions abound in our world, “people-to-people” exchange is ever more important.
Our world is polarized along lines drawn by our race, ethnicity, religious convictions, politics, gender, sexual orientation and many other attributes. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the current tensions defined by the intersection of the Judeo-Christian and Islamic worlds. The events of last week in India are just the most recent manifestations of these tensions. How to respond to this polarization?
Our governments pursue policies developed and sustained by the understandable imperatives of national security and national aspirations. The rhetoric resulting from these policies can be destructive and ineffective in terms of securing peace and stability for all societies. Can the people of countries in conflict connect with each other directly through exchanges based on common interests and needs — interests and needs defined by mutual aspirations, including the need to solve similar problems? I believe the answer is “yes” and that one of the most potent forces for such rapprochement is the set of relationships possible by means of student and faculty exchange and cooperation through higher education.
It was this logic that led to my recent visit to Iran along with five other presidents/chancellors of prominent American universities and the president of the Association of American Universities, a century-old consortium of some of the most recognized public and private research universities in the U.S. and Canada. The trip convinced me more than ever that we need to engage with our “enemies” if we have any hope of overcoming the fault lines that divide us.
Prior to the Iranian revolution of 1979, a large percentage of the faculty at Iranian universities was educated in the U.S., and the over 50,000 Iranian students in the U.S. were the single largest group of international students in our country. Today, fewer than 3,000 Iranian students come to our country each year. In addition to changes in U.S. visa policies and procedures, the profile of Iran’s government in the international community has made educational exchange all the more unlikely.
At the same time as the governments of Iran and many Western nations disagree and as the pitch of the rhetoric rises, there has been a growing interest in the academic communities of Iran and the U.S. to foster exchange and research collaboration as a way to rebuild what was once a mutually beneficial partnership. Through the National Academies of the U.S. and prominent Iranian institutions, several U.S. Nobel laureates and others have visited Iran. This year, the AAU was asked to arrange a visit of U.S. academic leaders to continue to improve relations between the academic cultures. The Richard Lounsbery Foundation, which supported in part the earlier exchanges by individual academics, also supported most of the travel costs for our recent trip; in-country expenses were borne by our Iranian hosts, largely the distinguished Sharif University of Technology in Tehran.
Our several-day visit involved meetings with presidents, professors, students, and staff in several universities and one academic health center in Tehran and a university in Esfahan. We opted not to meet with the president of Iran or other government representatives, except for a brief visit with the Minister of Science, Research and Technology and his staff, realizing that the support of this ministry would be critical to the rebuilding of academic exchanges. I was impressed by the warmth with which we were received by professors, students, staff and academic leadership. I was encouraged by the quality of the laboratories and curricula (largely in graduate education) that we encountered, although the U.S. embargo has decreased the availability of Western equipment for Iranian research facilities. The advanced work in stem-cell research and organ transplantation now going on in Iran led to fascinating discussions about the nexus of science and religion in our dissimilar cultures. I left with the hope that future exchanges would flourish and would help form a bridge between the cultures.
Two main impediments remain that will need to be overcome to make such exchange more likely. First, continued attention to U.S. visa and immigration policy will be necessary to achieve Colin Powell’s vision of “secure borders, open doors.” Second, the detention and imprisonment of academics in Iran, apparently based at least in part on the content of their scholarly inquiry, continue to have a severe chilling effect on our academic relationships. Both the American and Iranian academics seemed genuinely aware of these impediments and willing to do what we can to overcome them.
After returning to Cornell and from the perspective of my secure U.S. academic venue, and with the morning news in full view, I feel more strongly than ever that we need to open the channels of communication, discovery, inquiry and cultural interchange with our Iranian colleagues as a path to surmounting the barriers that divide and endanger us all.