Academics worldwide have attacked plans by the School of Oriental and African Studies to accept a donation from the Iranian government. They say it raises questions about good governance and that links with a repressive regime will damage the London University school's academic reputation.
SOAS has accepted about Pounds 180,000 from the Iranian ministry of culture and higher education, provided through its United Kingdom "agent", the Institute of Islamic Studies in London. The gift will be used to establish two three-year research fellowships.
One will be taken by the director of the Institute of Islamic Studies, Ayatollah Mohsen-Araki, brother of the head of Iran's notorious revolutionary guards.
Ayatollah Mohsen-Araki is a PhD student at SOAS. His fellowship has raised questions about the relationship between the donation, the independence of the assessment of his PhD and his appointment. It is understood that the fellowship is a postdoctoral research post for which he is not yet qualified.
More than 170 international academics are concerned about the school's links with a regime that has been accused of suppressing higher education and which has a poor human rights record. Independent Iranian academics at SOAS say that they will be intimidated by the presence of people with links to state security forces.
A letter of protest signed by 74 international academics was sent to Sir Tim Lankester, SOAS director, last week. "The recent development raises serious issues about academic integrity and freedom at SOAS," it says. "SOAS's link with the ultra conservative factions of the Iranian regime is particularly worrying at this time ... we are writing to appeal to you to rescind your cooperation agreement with immediate effect."
A petition from 100 SOAS academics last month claims the link has "serious implications for the academic reputation of the school". Nineteen professors, nine department heads and over a third of the academic board said the externally sponsored posts "should be subject to the school's established appointment procedures, including observance of equal opportunity and procedural transparency".
Sir Tim defended acceptance of the gift. He said: "The funding has safeguards built in. Both fellowships are appointed by us. We took the decisions and the arrangement is that it is entirely our prerogative to decide. They will both have a one-year probation period. The appointments were made entirely on academic grounds by our academic managers."
He said that Ayatollah Mohsen-Araki was "a fine scholar" and "a very mature" PhD student.
"I accept there are issues regarding the provenance of the funding. But on balance we thought the support offered was worth taking. Iranian studies has been in decline in Britain, and this relationship is in line with the British government's policy of constructive engagement with Iran."