In 1991, a memorandum signed by Khomeini’s successor, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, called for the government to block the progress of the Baha’is in Iranian society. Baha’is, along with thousands of other Iranians, were to be purged from public life.
Officials turned to the community lists, compiled first by the Hojjatieh and then by the Ministry of Intelligence, to identify Baha’is. The officials also used multiple-choice forms which required people to identify their religious affiliation, but which offered only the recognized religions of Islam, Zoroastrianism, Judaism, and Christianity, because they knew that hiding one’s faith is against Baha’i teachings.
Baha’i academics were fired from teaching positions. Baha’i students were expelled from universities, and all Baha’i applicants were blocked from being admitted in the future. Since learning is at the heart of Baha’i teachings, the Baha’is were appalled when they realized that this was to be their life if they chose to stay in their homes in Iran.
Rather than acquiesce, the Baha’i community rose up in resistance against this devastating policy. They had a dangerous but life-affirming idea: they could start their own informal university. With the support of the full Iranian Baha’i community, the Baha’i Institute for Higher Education, or BIHE, was established in 1987.
That same year, in 1987, the BIHE held its first classes. Baha’i academics dismissed from their jobs gave their time and expertise to teach. Baha’i students tricked their way into state libraries to conduct research by borrowing friends’ ID cards. Baha’i families offered their homes to be used as classrooms. Still more volunteers traveled between teachers and students to collect and deliver coursework.
The BIHE attracted over 900 students in its first 10 years. More than 150 teachers joined the initiative, offering 10 complete degree programs. Tahereh Berjis, the niece of the murdered Baha’i Sulayman Berjis, joined the faculty in its early years to teach medicine. Many of Dr. Berjis’s relatives followed his example and devoted their lives to medicine and public service.
From the start, the BIHE wanted to ensure that Baha’i students were not shortchanged in their education. Standards were high. Students applying to the BIHE had to meet the same requirements demanded of students attending official state universities. Professors expected a high level of performance from their students, despite the restrictions imposed on their community and difficult personal circumstances.
Today, the BIHE receives over 1,000 applications for its 32 degrees each year – and its academic programs continue to gain global recognition.
Education and Its Discontents
Marjan Davoudi, the daughter of philosopher Ali Murad Davoudi, was a student at a state university in the early years of the Islamic Republic.
After Khamenei’s memorandum was published, the university dean called Marjan to his office to tell her she was going to be expelled. It was a crushing moment for Marjan, who broke down in tears but promised herself that she would never stop learning. To continue her studies, Marjan enrolled at BIHE, even before the university was granted academic accreditations.
Within a few years, exciting opportunities were emerging for BIHE students. In the 1990s, they were connected to experts around the world through the internet. A number of Western universities began to accept BIHE graduates into their programs. Indiana University in the United States was the first college to offer distance learning to BIHE students, including Marjan Davoudi. Marjan later went to the US, earning her PhD at Indiana University at the age of 37. Degree in hand, she became a BIHE teacher.
The Rahimian brothers, Keyvan and Kamran, also went to BIHE. Kamran went to Canada to complete his studies. When he finished his degree, his family urged him to stay in the West, but he felt it was his “moral duty” to return to Iran and teach the next generation of Baha’is.
The decision was a gamble. The Islamic authorities were growing discontented about the existence of the BIHE. The government refused to recognize BIHE degrees and many Baha’is continued to be barred from their chosen fields. But the BIHE pressed on.