In Iran, however, conflict over who gets to run the universities has been the order of the day since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, following revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini‘s proclamation that “the nation’s progress lies with the university.”
Faced with an unruly student movement, the young Islamic Republic closed the entire university system for almost two years between 1980 and 1982. Dissidents were purged and curricula reformed according to Islamic criteria. In 1987, the Islamic Republic made it a legal requirement for universities to educate “a virtuous believer, conscientious and engaged in the service of the Islamic society.”
Despite being formally Islamic, the political importance of postsecondary education has only increased, particularly after students helped Mohammad Khatami, a Reformist advocate of cultural dialogue, get elected as president in 1997.
Private education has been one of the main channels through which competing factions have tried to mobilize students in their causes. Both Reformist and conservative figures have established their own private universities with curricula and teaching staff designed to follow the political leanings of their powerful founders.
The majority of these private universities are located in Tehran and Qom, and focus on teaching social sciences, humanities and religious studies. A notable example of a Reformist institution is Qom-based Mofid University, which enrolls over 2,500 students and was established by Ayatollah Abdolkarim Mousavi Ardebili, a former head of the judiciary.
On the conservative side, Ayatollah Mohammad Taghi Mesbah Yazdi founded the Imam Khomeini Institute in 1991 — a university that now hosts around 2,000 seminary students. Both of these institutions benefit from high national prestige in their respective fields. Indeed, Imam Sadeq University, which is located in Tehran and was founded by the powerful Ayatollahs Hossein Ali Montazeri and Mohammad Reza Mahdavi Kani, is one of the main educators of the state elite.