Jared Cohon has no plans for a branch campus in Iran as he prepares to visit the country this week. Neither is he thinking about exchanging students or professors.
One thing the Carnegie Mellon University president does hope to do on this rare visit by an American dignitary to the Islamic republic: Learn.
“The purpose is to learn about Iranian universities, interact with their leadership and students and faculty,” Cohon said. “My expectation is to learn.”
Cohon is part of a delegation of six university presidents assembled by the Association of American Universities, who will touch down in Iran Saturday night for a visit to the country once labeled by President Bush as part of an “axis of evil.”
“The presidents will visit a number of Iranian universities, including Sharif University, which is their leading research and technical university,” said Barry Toiv, AAU vice president for public affairs. “They will meet with faculty as well, and at Sharif there will be a student forum in which students will be able to converse with and ask questions of the American university presidents.”
He stressed, though, that the trip is entirely apolitical.
“Rest assured the visit is not intended to suggest that the actions of the Iranian government, whether it’s their seeking a nuclear capability or support for terrorism or comments about the State of Israel, this visit is not intended to suggest this is in any way acceptable to these presidents. They are not there to visit with the government.”
Yet Cohon, who is Jewish, is still concerned about what is happening in Iran.
“I am a Jew and I feel about it the same way as Americans do and as readers of The Jewish Chronicle probably do,” he said. “It’s not a comfortable feeling, but it’s important for me to keep in mind that I’m not visiting the president of Iran and I’m not visiting his government. I’m visiting students and faculty leadership of universities in Iran. Everything I’ve read and heard is there’s a big difference between the government, and its views and the views of the Iranian people.”
The trip is being made with the blessing of the U.S. government, according to Toiv.
“We talked with the State Department about this, and the State Department was actually encouraging [about] doing this trip,” he said. “They are well aware of, and deeply concerned about, the actions of the Iranian government, but they are also supportive of certain kinds of people-to-people exchanges.”
“It’s felt that establishing better relations at the university level is a way of improving relations between the two peoples,” Toiv said, “even though the two governments are clearly at odds over some very important issues.”
It’s not the first academic mission from the United States to Iran. Previous trips were made by the National Academy of Science and the National Academy of Engineers, both of which approached the AAU about making this latest trip at the request of Iranian academics.
And should Ahmadinejad decide he wants to meet the presidents while they are in the country?
“They’ve made it clear they have no interest in meeting him,” Toiv said.
That’s a far cry from Ahmadinejad’s visit to Columbia University in 2007 when Columbia’s president, Lee C. Bollinger, not only met the Iranian president before he spoke at the school, he publicly slammed him for his “brutal crackdown” on dissidents in Iran and for his “ridiculous” comments on the Holocaust.
Bollinger, who his an AAU member, is “not on the trip,” Toiv said.
Cohon who was specifically requested to join the trip — he says because he is the CMU president — doesn’t know whether the university can use anything he learns there.
“I’m not going there anticipating we’ll create any programs or formal exchanges,” he said. “I’m realty going as a representative of the higher education community in our country. We all believe education is a crucial element in bettering relationships between our two countries.”
(Lee Chottiner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)