December 1, 2008

Skorton Meets With Iranian Official in Science Exchange

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Correction appended.

While in Iran from Nov. 14 to Nov. 20, President David Skorton met with Iranian Minister of Science, Research and Technology Mohammad Mehdi Zahedi, despite reports that the president would not be meeting with Iranian government officials.
According to Skorton, who traveled to Tehran last month for six days with a delegation of six university presidents on a trip coordinated by the Association of American Universities, the group did not meet with any other government officials. However, they met with Zahedi on the basis that the trip’s purpose was to promote “interactions of science faculties.”
“We decided before we left, we are not diplomats, we are educators,” Skorton said, refuting speculation that the group was scheduled to meet with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. “Now, there is obvious tension between the governments of our two countries, which is part of the reason we met with academics [rather than government officials],” he said.
A statement released by the University on Nov. 12 stated, “The group will not meet with Iranian government officials or engage in political talks, the participants emphasize. The Iranian government has been harshly criticized for its persecution of intellectuals.”
Skorton said he was not aware that the meeting would be taking place before he departed and asserted that the meeting was brief.
“We spent an hour with the minister of science, and spent days with faculty in labs … [it was a] brief courtesy visit with the minister,” he said. The majority of the visit — hosted by Sharif University of Technology in Tehran — was spent meeting with higher education officials and science and technology faculty.
President David Leebron of Rice University who accompanied Skorton on the trip said the meeting with Zahedi was on the schedule before departure for Iran, adding that other officials from Zahedi’s department were in attendance.
“I don’t think we decided to meet [Zahedi],” Leebron said. “I think the Iranians regarded this as an important delegation … We were not interested in meeting with any government officials. But if you thought about the purpose of the trip, there were two appropriate ministers we could have met with: the minister of science, and the minister of education … It’s hard to say that this particular meeting was inappropriate.”
“I think that the [meeting with the] minister who was in some sense very precisely responsible for the subject matter of the trip made some sense,” he said.
He continued, describing the meeting.
“We heard a significant amount about the Iran-Iraq War, which looms quite large in Iranian consciousness, broadly as a step back to the development of Iran, and unhappiness of course with the role the United States played,” Leebron said. “I thought it noteworthy that the minister used a great deal of his time to talk about that war, though across the meetings a range of concerns emerged.”
Tommy Bruce, vice president for University communications, told the Daily Pennsylvanian in early November that Skorton is “participating in this trip to make the point that the Iranian people should not be held accountable for the actions of their government.” He further stressed the notion that “person-to-person outreach” is crucial in promoting a sense of cultural respect between the two countries.
“Prior to the Iranian revolution in 1979, a very high percentage of the faculty at Iranian universities was educated in the United States,” AAU President Robert M.
Berdahl stated in a press release. “Since that time, and especially since Sept. 11, that number has declined dramatically. We believe it is important to maintain and renew academic ties between our two countries.”
Political unrest has plagued Iran for decades over mounting tension between Islamic rule and the breadth of academia. Since the Iranian Cultural Revolution, Iran’s academic relationship with the United States and the Western world has been strained. The movement expelled hundreds of university professors in a wave of reform to pronounce national theocratic rule and abolish Western influence, particularly in the sphere of Iranian academia.
The Iranian student protests of 1999 further intensified the clash of ideologies. The riots ended with the disappearance of up to 1,400 Iranian students who were allegedly detained by Islamic authorities, according to the Human Rights Watch.
The academic climate in Iran remains faces with roadblocks to scholastic freedom. Medhi Zakerian, an Iranian human-rights scholar, was scheduled to teach as a visiting professor at the University of Pennsylvania Law School this fall but has been detained by Iranian officials since mid-August. Skorton said that such instances were discussed with both academic faculties in Iran as well as Zahedi.
“The general issue and specific issue [of safety] was brought up on numerous occasions, with faculty, with university administrators and with the minister of science,” Skorton said.
“Iran, regardless of its government’s obvious faults, is a country that respects higher education,” AAU spokesperson Barry Toiv stated in an e-mail. “Now, a very high percentage of the country receives a college education. Interestingly, 60 percent of that student population is women, despite the severe limits placed on women in Iranian society as a whole.”
According to Leebron, the delegation similarly expressed their concerns to Minister Zahedi regarding “what [the delegates] would call interference” with academic freedom. They were particularly concerned with American-born Esha Momeni, a graduate student at California State University at Northridge, who was arrested in Tehran in mid-October while researching the Iran’s women’s movement. He called this case “one particular point of difficulty.”
“[The delegation] is part of a series of visits of scientists on exchange,” Leebron said. “The State Department and the Secretary of State have endorsed the ideas of these trips and these kinds of conversations. From the Iranian perspective, they seemed to very much welcome this trip.”
According to Toiv, “The State Department did not express a point of view on this meeting [with Zahedi.]”
Skorton assured that the delegation emphasized that detaining scholars would be a substantial impediment in advancing academic ties between Iran and the U.S.
“We did discuss with academic colleagues the things that are inhibiting exchange right now,” Skorton said, additionally citing that American visa policies have significantly tightened since Sept. 11. He emphasized the importance of finding a middle ground between security and freedom. “I feel the doors of the U.S. must remain open. We are a country of immigrants,” he said.
Skorton is unsure about future academic exchanges between Iran and the U.S. but said he sees the movement gaining “some momentum.”
“Going forward, it’s unclear,” he said. “We hope we would be able to develop more robust relationship between the people of the two countries.”
In addition to Skorton, Leebron and Berdahl, members of the delegation also included Jared Cohon of Carnegie Mellon University, J. Bernard Machen of the University of Florida, C.D. Mote Jr. of the University of Maryland at College Park, Larry Vanderhoef of the University of California-Davis and Max Angelholzer, representing the Lounsbery Foundation, a philanthropic organization that paid for the travel expenses of the trip.
According to the AAU, some members of the delegation were chosen because “they or their institutions have been involved in previous scientific and other exchanges with Iran.”
Skorton said he was not certain why he was chosen as a delegate, but cited two possible reasons for his involvement.
“Cornell is a very international school, very comprehensive in terms of science offerings,” Skorton said, suggesting that he was invited to represent Cornell, “due to its capabilities [and] excellence, [rather] than prior relations.” Skorton also mentioned that he serves as chair of international activities of the AAU.
“I went not representing the United States, but representing Cornell, representing American higher education,” he said.