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Academic Freedom and its Importance in Iran

Generally, academic freedom encompasses many areas: the right to teach and discuss, to carry out research and publish results and make them known, to freely express opinions about the academic institution or system in which one works, to participate in professional or representative academic bodies and to not be censored. In 1997 UNESCO – the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization – determined this definition for academic freedom and it has been widely used since. The meaning of academic freedom has evolved with the times, and the many regions of the world have contributed to these developments. 

As mentioned, all regions of the world have aided the development of academic freedom in some form. The oldest contributions can be dated as early as the third century C.E., and others have developed more recently. Iran, Niloufar Bayani’s home country, can be credited with the establishment of the Academy of Gundishapur in the 6th and 7th centuries. This center for learning is known as an important medical center during this time. As academics began to become an area of importance over time, the necessity of protecting scholars and their academic freedom has also become significant. 

It is important to consider that there are different types of academic freedom; traditional and contemporary. The traditional view distinguishes “academic” from “non-academic” expression based on four criteria; the context of the expression and whether it is academic or not, the format of the expression, the target audience, and the location of the expression. The context refers to whether the expression is published in an academic journal (academic) or a blog or opinion essay (non-academic). The format of the expression looks at whether it is a data-heavy analysis (academic) or a written commentary (non-academic). The target audience is concerned with whether this expression is meant for the higher education sector (academic) or a public audience (non-academic). Finally, location considers whether the expression is on-campus or off-campus. The contemporary or “socially-engaged” view challenges the traditional view on three points. Believers in the contemporary view think the traditional view is oversimplified, which can be dangerous. Without a clear definition of what is or is not protected by academic freedom, scholars may be violating this right without knowing. The second challenge to the traditional view is that it provides scholars with a sense of false security. Since the traditional view focuses on distinguishing “academic” from “non-academic” expression, it is saying that true scholarship is more worthy of academic freedom protection than other forms of expression. Finally, the contemporary view emphasizes social responsibility whereas the traditional view does not. Social responsibility is “the duty to seek and impart truth in order to respond to contemporary problems and the needs of all members of society.” The state and public respect institutional autonomy and academic freedom, and these freedoms are then used in the academic community to benefit society.

Scholars at Risk (SAR) is an international network of institutions and individuals who aim to protect scholars and promote academic freedom. Whether it is offering safety in the face of grave threats, or spreading awareness for those who have been wrongfully arrested, SAR works to uphold academic freedom. Niloufar Bayani is one example of a scholar SAR continues to advocate for. Niloufar has been wrongfully imprisoned on charges of espionage for her work with the Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation. SAR has used its resources to circulate her name and story to show this gross violation of academic freedom.

There has been growing concern with academic freedom in Iran. Seventeen human rights groups have issued a joint statement on the matter, highlighting worrisome findings. There have been a significant number of violations of the rights to freedom of expression, association, and assembly on campuses. Authorities can expel and suspend students, or fire graduate instructors who are found to be partaking in these actions. At the time this statement was issued in 2012, over six hundred students and university lecturers had been arrested and imprisoned since 2009. This has deprived those scholars of education, solely based on political activities and beliefs. Iran’s violation of these terms is a direct violation of UNESCO, which it is a part of. Scholars in Iran continue to face violations of their academic rights based on their opinions, gender, religion, and ethnicity.

Scholars should feel as though they are protected by academic freedom when it comes to sharing their work. While many countries uphold the policy of academic freedom, many countries, such as Iran, punish their citizens for going against what the government believes. The freedom of many scholars is in jeopardy. SAR works to bring light to instances where scholars are wrongfully convicted of violating the terms of academic freedom. Educating the public on the importance of academic freedom can help prevent scholars from wrongful charges for crimes they did not commit.

Works Cited

  1. Scholars at Risk, Inc., “What Is Academic Freedom?,” FutureLearn, 2017,
  2. Ibid
  3. Scholars at Risk, Inc., “What Is Academic Freedom?” “What Is Academic Freedom?”
  4. Scholars at Risk, Inc., “‘Traditional’ versus Contemporary or ‘Socially-Engaged’ Academic Freedom,” FutureLearn, 2017,
  5. Ibid
  6. Ibid
  7. Ibid
  8. Ibid
  9.  “About SAR,” Scholars at Risk, accessed April 22, 2021,
  10.  “Niloufar Bayani, Iran,” Scholars at Risk, April 18, 2019,
  11.  “Iran: Government Assault on Academic Freedom,” Human Rights Watch, May 31, 2012,
  12. Ibid
  13. Ibid

You can learn more about academic freedom and how it is threatened worldwide by reading about wrongfully imprisoned scholars at the link below.

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