Saba Vasefi was popular with most of her students, but not surprised when she was abruptly dismissed without explanation from her post at Shahid Beheshti University in Tehran.
The professor and human rights activist had been warned on four occasions by university authorities that they were not happy with her using words such as “execution”, “woman” and “victim” in her classes and lectures.
No matter that Ms Vasefi, who at 28 is barely older than some of her students and younger than others, was mostly discussing old Persian literary texts. What seems to have upset the authorities was that she drew parallels between human rights abuses centuries ago and those in present-day Iran.
“There are other professors I know who received the same warning,” Ms Vasefi said. She is owed three semesters’ pay.
At least three other professors have been dismissed from Iranian universities this month on what human rights activists say were also political grounds, either for expressing different viewpoints from the government or for supporting student protesters.
The purge appears set to intensify. Many analysts and rights activists fear that the regime is determined to accelerate a creeping “cultural revolution”.
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iran’s president, first called for a purge of liberal professors and secular academic staff in 2006, a year after he came to power. Since then, at least 50 professors expressing independent views have been sacked for political reasons, according to the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, an NGO based in New York and the Netherlands.
But last month there was an ominous new warning from Iran’s minister of science, research and technology. Kamran Dansehjoo proclaimed that faculty members who do not “share the regime’s direction”, and who do not have “practical commitment to velayat-e faqih” – rule of the supreme leader – would be dismissed.
Universities are viewed by the jittery regime as incubators of the political dissent that has gripped the country since Mr Ahmadinejad’s disputed re-election last June.
“It’s clear they feel the universities are the hub of the problem and they want to sort it out,” said Ali Ansari, a professor of Iranian history at St Andrews University in Scotland. “It seems that they are going after a fully-fledged cultural revolution.”
Aaron Rhodes, a spokesman for the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, describes the regime’s actions as “an attempted cultural coup”.
The state, he said, is “forcing ideology down the throats of the civil population, trying to control ideas and beliefs”. It has not succeeded “other than ruining careers and institutions”.
Sackings aside, many academics have paid a heavy price. Those who attended conferences abroad in recent years were often lambasted at home. Some were arrested on charges of trying to foment a “velvet” revolution.
In September, just weeks before Iranian universities re-opened after a summer of unprecedented unrest, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, expressed concern that nearly two million of Iran’s 3.8 million students in higher education were majoring in social sciences.
“If we teach a copy of what westerners have said and written to our young people, then we are conveying to them both doubt and disbelief in Islamic principles in our values,” he said.
The High Council for Cultural Revolution, in charge of drafting academic policies, promptly ordered a “revision” of social science subjects. Hardline senior aides of Ayatollah Khamenei at the same time pledged to purge universities of western influences and to “Islamise” humanities curricula.
Not all of the professors who were dismissed have been from social sciences or liberal arts backgrounds.
One sacked this month was a professor of telecommunications, the other of electrical engineering. Both had spoken out in support of dissenting students beaten in December by plain-clothes security forces who had entered their campus.
Iranian academics outside the Islamic republic say they have few details about the extent of the dismissal or “retirement” of university professors.
“Clearly, even the public discussion of ‘secular influences’ at universities is intended to intimidate professors who have been politically active in support of Ahmadinejad’s opponents, even if it does not lead to their outright dismissal”, Farideh Farhi, a renowned Iran scholar at the University of Hawaii, said.
The clampdown on huge street protests ignited by Mr Ahmadinejad’s re-election made global headlines last summer. Less noticed, but potentially more significant, is the repression at Iran’s universities.
“They’re trying to rip out from the roots the intellectual base of the country,” Prof Ansari said. “It will radicalise students further. You have a critical mass now in Iran that simply don’t believe what they’re being told any more.”
Iran’s huge student population is already boiling. Thousands were arrested during and after last summer’s street protests and some have been sentenced to jail terms of up to 15 years. Others were banished entirely from higher education and many were suspended and made to pledge that they would abandon political activity.
Iranian universities, cradles of political activism since the shah’s time, were shut down for nearly three years after the 1979 Islamic revolution during a “cultural revolution”. The aim was to Islamise campuses and curricula, “purifying” them of western influence.
Scores of lecturers were sacked and students ejected after being perceived to be leftist or liberal.
The experiment failed: the student population remained thirsty for modern ideas and intellectual dialogue with the West.
Analysts and academics are confident that today’s less dramatic but more insidious efforts by the regime to censure and “cleanse” certain university faculties and curb freedom of thought are similarly doomed.
Strait-jacketing the teaching of social and political sciences while intimidating liberal-minded professors and students will not extinguish the desire for social reform and change, they say.
“Iranian scholars, artists and other intellectuals have managed an independent and diverse course of development: they are not susceptible to crude manipulation,” said Mr Rhodes. “The attempted cultural coup has not thwarted intellectual freedom or a commitment of teaching and research.”
Moreover, purging curricula of western social theory and literature risks further radicalising many middle-class students who were politically awakened only by last year’s presidential election.
The government’s policies will also “debase Iran’s universities, long a source of national pride and admiration by scholars around the world”, said Mr Rhodes.
And it will inevitably “mean an exodus of qualified academics seeking employment abroad”, added Prof Ansari.