Fresh from a rare visit to the Islamic Republic of Iran, where few U.S. dignitaries get to travel these days, Carnegie Mellon University President Jared Cohon took away a new perspective of the country.
Cohon was one of six American university presidents who visited academic institutions in Iran last month on a trip organized by the Association of American Universities.
According to the CMU president, there’s little difference between Iran’s students, and his.
“You could have told me I was standing in any academic hall in America and Europe,” Cohon told The Chronicle.
In fact, his impressions of the students he met were that they were smart and polite, and not necessarily in agreement with their hard-line government.
And like American college students, Cohon said, they can also feel stressed out by their workloads, as he noticed when some students made poster presentations on their school projects to the visiting presidents.
“If you’re a graduate student in front of your poster,” Cohon said, “and you’re presenting to six American university presidents, that can be a stressful situation.”
Cohon spent his brief three-day stay in Iran entirely in the capital, Tehran. He spent a full day at Sharif University, considered that nation’s most prestigious school of higher learning, but he also visited others, including one called Amir Khabir University, formerly Tehran Polytechnic. The school was renamed, Cohon was told, for “a martyr.”
But the young people he met — and Cohon considers a university’s students to be among the best barometer of the nature of the institution — hardly impress him as indoctrinated into the hard- line politics of the Iranian government.
“When in Tehran, one is treated to propaganda all around you,” Cohon said. “It is in newspapers, in slogans on walls and buildings.
“There wasn’t any of that on campus,” he said. “In that sense I believe that there was a gap [between students and government].”
Cohon’s observance was consistent with recent media reports, including one YouTube video showing a Shiraz University student verbally attacking Ali Larijani, the speaker of parliament, on a visit to the campus.
His trip to Iran, Cohon noted, was not intended to achieve any major breakthroughs between American and Iranian university leaders. And no meetings with government officials took place.
“The purpose of this trip was accomplished,” he said. “It furthered interaction between leaders of major universities and students.
“One has to keep in mind,” he added, “our expectations or goals were not very ambitious.”
Israel never came up in any subject Cohon was privy to, though some people criticized America’s labeling of Iran as part of an “axis of evil;” they complained the work they produced or papers they wrote were not treated the same in the United States as colleagues from other countries.
As for the resourcefulness of Iranian students, Cohon said he noticed, that when he visited campus laboratories and saw how they compensated for equipment shortages.
“We saw firsthand that sanctions did have an impact,” he said. “Iranian universities have trouble getting equipment from businesses because it is made in countries that have imposed sanctions.”
The scarcity of supplies he said, forces students to be resourceful in their campus laboratories where doing work or research for their professors.
(Lee Chottiner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)