Arien Mack & Kian Tajbakhsh

Academics in the Crosshairs

Air Date: May 28, 2019

New University in Exile Consortium founder Arien Mack and Iranian-American scholar Kian Tajbakhsh of the Committee on Global Thought discuss the assault on intellectual freedom.


I’m Alexander Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. My guests today, Arien Mack and Kian Tajbakhsh. Mack is a professor of psychology at the New School. She founded the New University in Exile Consortium, described as an expanding group of universities and colleges publicly committed to the belief that academic community has both the responsibility and capacity to assist persecuted and endangered scholars everywhere and to protect the intellectual capital that is jeopardized when universities and scholars are under assault. One of those scholars in exile is Kian Tajbakhsh, professor of urban planning at Columbia University. He has taught at both American and Iranian institutions. Tajbakhsh’s academic research spans theoretical and policy projects related to the culture of urbanism as well as the governance of cities and metropolitan regions. In 2007 he was one of more than 100 people charged with fomenting the post-June 12 election unrest in a mass show trial before a revolutionary court in Tehran. He was convicted, up to 15 years. He served nearly five years and was released on the implementation day of the Iranian Nuclear Accord. Welcome to you both. Thank you for your time today.


TAJBAKHSH: Thank you.


MACK: Thank you for having us.


HEFFNER: Arien, can you tell us about the original formation of the University in Exile Consortium?


MACK: Sure. Well, as some people know, but many people may not, the New School in 1933, when the first President Alvin Johnson was still the first president of the New School, knew and learned a great deal about the fact that Hitler was rising to power and the risk to life of Jewish academics and intellectuals was extreme and extraordinarily and against a great many obstacles, he initiated and started a rescue operation that brought endangered, threatened German, largely Jewish academic social scientists to the United States and an a cadre of them were placed at the New School, which had no graduate school at that point. It was primarily a school of adult, for adult education, evening classes. And he brought them to the New School and it enabled him to create with kind of one fell swoop, a graduate faculty, quite distinguished, European, in the social sciences. The first year of its existence in 1933, it was called the University in Exile.

The following year it became the Graduate Faculty of Social and Political Sciences at the New School. And more recently it’s become; its name is the New School for Social Research. That was the original University in Exile. And while only a small number of threatened academics were brought to the New School and stayed at the New School, Johnson had a great deal to or to do with placing the other academics who were brought to safety to the United States at other universities in the country. But he was the, he raised the money, the anti-Semitic. There was a great deal of anti-Semitism then it was not easy for Jews, as many people know, to come to the United States. So he made this happen against great odds.

HEFFNER: Amid the suppression of intellectual life in Iran, Professor, how did you link up with Arien originally?

TAJBAKHSH: I, my first academic job was at the New School, which I joined in the mid 1990s. And after a few years that I was there, and I had been working, not on Iranian, I was not a professor of Iranian studies, but I became interested in doing research in Iran because of the opening up that accompanied the election of Mohammad Khatami in 1997 as president of Iran. And he initiated a very far-reaching reform movement within Iran to open Iran up, both to the world and to move towards a more open society. So I met Arien at a time when we were both teaching at the New School. And, in fact, I first became directly interested in going to Iran to do research because the president of the university at the time, Jonathan Fanton, had just returned from a summer trip to Iran.

He had been a part of a delegation of university professors who I think had gone to Iran at the invitation of the government. And when he returned, he invited a delegation of Iranian diplomats to initiate discussions about scholarly exchange and the possibilities of expanding these kinds of university relationships. After that, I decided to go to Iran and work on research in my area of specialty, which has to do with local democracy and local elections and urban planning. And that’s really, that’s where we met. And after several years I decided to move to Iran permanently. And, while I was there, I agreed to become the representative of the Open Society Institute, the Soros Foundation, working on democracy promotion projects. And in that capacity, I did meet Arien when she came to Iran, on the journal donation project. It was a project supported by the Open Society Institute to help universities around the world have access to academic journals and materials. So that’s where I met.

HEFFNER: Let me just ask you more specifically though, in the intro, I alluded to your incarceration the trial and the suppression of academic freedom. At what point in your relationship as a faculty, as a professor in Iran, at what point did it start going sour and to what do you attribute that?

TAJBAKHSH: I, when I went to Iran, I worked as an academic, part time. I tried to apply for a fulltime position and Iranian universities, but for a number of reasons that didn’t work out, partly because I think of my background, it was hard to be vetted, to be accepted. It was a very long formal process, but it was also the fact that I was working, as a, working independently as a researcher for a number of international organizations, including the Open Society Institute, the UN, the World Bank and so forth. So I didn’t want to commit full time, but I was teaching part time and I think after a few years when I noticed that I wasn’t being invited back to teach as a guest lecturer, I noticed, you know, there was pushback partly because I think some of the topics that I was discussing, which had to do with local democracy or the expansion of democracy in various developing societies,

HEFFNER: So was it a threat to the theocracy, in short.

TAJBAKHSH: It’s important to understand that Iran has a very particularly ideological opposition to Western social science and Western intellectual frameworks, philosophical frameworks. That’s maybe different from other countries in which the repression or restrictions have to do with politics or they have to do with emerging out of war. For example, in Syria, you know, where academics have to escape, you know, military conflict. In Iran, the government of Iran, the state or the regime in Iran or the Nezam as the Iranian state calls itself has been explicit in its opposition to having Western-based social science being taught in the universities. So this is something which is government policy. It is explicitly articulated by the leadership in Iran and it, and you know, the Supreme Leader of Iran has made it a priority of his state, to expunge really, I mean he has said very clearly that he does not want social science, Western-based social science, because it’s based in secular assumptions and so forth to be taught in Iranian universities and so many academics in the years leading up to my first arrest, increasingly felt these restrictions in their academic life.

HEFFNER: Arien. How does the professor’s experience in Iran compared to what you’re observing now and the scholars that you’re bringing in?

MACK: Well, I mean, all of them share one thing. They share the fact that they are threatened. Some of them were imprisoned, all of them, some of them fled because of war. We now have as members of the consortium, 15 scholars. They’re from very different places. One is from India where she was an activist and she comes from a place called Manipur, where the indigenous population of which she is part have been living under martial law. And she was an activist trying to change that and had to flee. We have Syrian scholars, hosted by a consortium member, member universities, and they fled for obvious reasons. I mean, they were, one was a doctor and actually was doing emergency medicine in Syria and had to flee just to save his life. We have a scholar from the Ukraine who had to flee for other reasons, from Turkmenistan, from really many, Cambodia. So they come from many different places, but all of them share one thing. None of them were able to stay where they were without either being jailed or killed. And the largest cohort are academics from Turkey where the Erdogan government has ruthlessly fired hundreds of academics for doing no more than signing what was called, or what is called the Academics for Peace Petition, which was a simple declaration of a protest against the treatment of Kurds, of the Kurdish population that lives in Turkey. And all of the Turkish scholars who are part of the consortium are signatories. There are six of them, signatories to that petition to which there were many signatories. So the differences, there are differences. There are obviously similarities.

HEFFNER: When we hosted Human Rights Watch director Ken Roth here,

MACK: Right.

HEFFNER: And this was in the months after President Trump had been elected and then inaugurated. I asked him point blank, is this the new fascism, this authoritarian pedigree that you’re describing in the countries where academics can’t operate with security. You cited at the beginning of our conversation, the World War II, Holocaust era, and the conditions that led to a Nazi-ism, what are we to make of those respective countries and what appears to be a rise in authoritarianism that is stymieing free expression and academic liberty.

MACK: Okay. I’ll try to answer, but I think there’s no simple answer because while the countries in central Europe: like Hungary, which has now done this extraordinary thing of evicting the Central European University, which is the Soros funded American-style university that’s been in Budapest now for quite a long time, and it is a graduate school, not unlike the my own at the New School and there’s obviously a huge move towards authoritarianism in Poland and in other places in eastern Central Europe and Russia for sure. But I think that’s different than the scholars who are coming from Syria or from places where there is no past history of a democratic or more democratic regime,

HEFFNER: For recent history.

MACK: Well, even long history, but certainly recent history. So, I don’t want to say that it’s all due to the rise of authoritarianism


MACK: And populism.

HEFFNER: Sure. You said you identify American style, and you said something very similar, the social sciences as taught and conceived from the American perspective, that’s what’s frowned upon or blocked in Iran to this day to some extent, right?


HEFFNER: So what is this backlash that has been decades long now, this anti enlightenment backlash, how can you make sense of it today and at all conceive of a way forward where Iran in the next decade has a climate that is more conducive to academic freedom?

TAJBAKHSH: I mean, I think it’s important in the case of Iran, which I know best, to emphasize that, it’s fairly unique as far as I can see in having a somewhat principled, I mean, it’s not arbitrary repression in that sense. It is principled in this sense that it is formal articulated state policy that the Islamic regime, the Islamic Republic of Iran sees itself as a based on Islamic principles, as interpreted by the leadership, the political and the religious leadership in Iran. The guidelines for what is acceptable in terms of subjects being taught or assumptions being articulated in the university are quite formally, you know, they exist in formal documents. There is a Supreme Council of the Cultural Revolution. And that official body covers educational curriculum, the direction of the university,

HEFFNER: The conditions on the ground did not improve subsequent to the nuclear accord.

TAJBAKHSH: No, they didn’t. I mean, I think when we look back, I mean, the reason I, the reason I went back, and there was a flowering of intellectual life and academic exchange was during the period of the reform movement in which the reformists who are also Islamists, but they have a different interpretation of Islam. They welcomed an interchange with the Western world and with the enlightenment thought and secular thought. They didn’t endorse it, but they were open to a dialogue. And, what became apparent to me was that, that wasn’t welcomed by the leadership of the state in Iran and it went against and in fact violated their principles of what they saw, what universities should be pursuing. And of course, you know, the other important point here is that universities became centers of democratizing or liberalizing opposition to the regime. And so that no doubt played an important role.

HEFFNER: Can you give us a more expansive view of the Middle East and how Iran and intellectual freedom in Iran is relevant to the broader situation now, Saudi Arabia and other countries and how their activity or American universities activity in Qatar or United Arab Emirates or Saudi Arabia, how that has at all influenced this whole conversation?

TAJBAKHSH: I would say it hasn’t influenced, I mean, the kinds of activities that American universities have in the region have not had, a, well, at least they’ve not had a positive impact. I mean, the presence, for example, of American universities in Beirut or in Cairo, or now in the Gulf these are not seen as possibilities by the Iranian leadership or the Iranian government, these are not models to be welcomed. And certainly after 2009, which was the big political crisis around the green movement in Iran, there is much less space for it.

HEFFNER: But have they improved conditions in the countries in which they’re hosted/

MACK: No. The answer is no.

HEFFNER: The ideal of principled obstinacy, the theocracy imposing its will on those universities. That’s not very, in my estimation, it’s not so different from the eastern European regimes that are saying we endorse the idea of ill-liberal democracy today.

MACK: Some of them, yes, that’s true. Some of them I mean certainly Orban. But I think also the Orban, attack on CEU and Central European University was in part a response to George Soros and the rise of antis-Semitism in Europe, which is I think now we’re receiving a great deal of coverage and I think is real. And I mean, I think it’s difficult and probably a mistake to try to, you know, explain everything everywhere with one story. So I do think that,

HEFFNER: Was there another story you want to tell about your scholars today?

MACK: Well, I think as I tried to say, first of all, let me just say, who are the members of the consortium?


MACK: Because these were universities I give a great deal of credit to for agreeing to join an institution that before they agreed didn’t exist. So when I wrote these institutions and simply wrote their presidents and invited them to join this nonexistent consortium, those that said yes and the person who said yes, first of all was Lee Bollinger at Columbia who was a supporter from the very beginning.

HEFFNER: So tell us the schools.

MACK: Okay. So the current members are Arizona State University, Amherst, Barnard, Brown University, Columbia University, Connecticut College, Georgetown University, George Mason, Rutgers University, Trinity College, Wayne State, Wellesley College, University of Pittsburgh and Yale. And of course the New School where the whole thing is based and we are expect very soon to have two more members. We have a verbal commitment from the president of Hunter College and it looks very much to us like Harvard will also be joining very shortly, so out of nothing we now have a really substantial group of universities all committed to hosting a scholar and let me just say one thing I want to say of the consortium because the consortium, this University in Exile Consortium does not have the mission of the original University in Exile.

We are not ourselves rescuing and placing endangered scholars at universities around the United States. There are two organizations that do that in the United States. What we do is when the scholars are here and hosted by our consortium members, we try to address a problem I think no one was addressing, namely the sense that these scholars airlifted in, dropped into an American University. They’re safe, they’re out of harm’s way, but they have lost their identity. They’ve lost their sense of belonging. They are really suffering from exile, which is a very profound state, as many people have written about it on how devastating it can be and the mission of the University in Exile Consortium is to try through various activities and conversations to really create a sense of community among the hosted scholars.

HEFFNER: There is really an opportunity in the robustness of that community and dialogue, for these scholars to, as they are in exile and safe and secure, think of how not only they can rally the spirit of the cohort, but can brainstorm together to bring solutions as much as possible, and it may not be feasible, at least not today, but to bring the framework of solutions to their countries.

MACK: Absolutely.

HEFFNER: How do you think, from your own experience, these scholars can embark on that so you and your colleagues in this cohort going forward, you know, thinking of solutions.

TAJBAKHSH: Yes. I mean, I’d like to just, I mean, I mean, it’s a two-step process. I mean, the first step is that one, scholars have to leave their country and they arrive in the United States. The first step is for them to, in a sense, be able to put the pieces back together. Many, the scholars are in the country for the first time or they’ve been out of academia for many years like me. And I mean I want to take this opportunity of course, thanking Arien for her support for all these years, the New School, had to campaign for my release and for other scholars release, and also present, she mentioned pleasant Bollinger the president of Columbia University was one of the first to support this initiative. And his idea is extraordinary, has been extraordinary in supporting scholars like me in giving me a space to be able to, really find our feet again. The second step about how then to reach out to the countries of origin. I think it’s hard to say. Much depends on the state of those countries and much depends on the possibilities of diplomatic relationships that allow.

HEFFNER: There are factors outside of their control.

TAJBAKHSH: The first step is the one we’re involved in now. And I think it’s absolutely critical. It provides, and for me, I mean, I, there are many scholars who are much less integrated into the United States academic environment than I because I did… I graduated from American University; I lived in the U S I speak English. Many, many others, exiled scholars need a sense of community to be able to find a way to find a place for themselves in academia. And I would say that at the moment, you know, until circumstances open up in the countries of origin, the most important thing that this initiative can do is allow these scholars to do their work, remain viable as academics and researchers and one way they can do it is to work and do research on their countries.

HEFFNER: Thank you both. Appreciate your time and your courage.

TAJBAKHSH: Thank you.

MACK: Thank you for having us.

TAJBAKHSH: Thank you.

HEFFNER: And thanks to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time for thoughtful excursion into the world of ideas. Until then, keep an open mind. Please visit The Open Mind website at to view this program online or to access over 1,500 other interviews and do check us out on Twitter and Facebook @OpenMindTV for updates on future programming.