Michael Ballagh, Pitzer Vice President, in US University Delegation to Iran for Closer Higher Education Cooperation

IIE Launches New Iran Higher Education Initiative

Michael Ballagh, associate vice president for international programs

Claremont, Calif. (June 24, 2015) — Michael Ballagh, associate vice president for international programs at Pitzer College, was part of a historic delegation of senior US higher education representatives to Iran last week, led by the Institute of International Education. The delegation met with counterparts from 13 Iranian universities and research institutes to pave the way for increasing academic cooperation between the two countries. Last week, IIE announced a new IIE Iran Higher Education Initiative to reopen and expand educational and scientific dialogue between Iran and the United States.

Led by IIE’s president and CEO Allan E. Goodman, the delegation included Ball State University, Pitzer College, Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, the University of Southern California and Wayne State University, as well as senior representatives of IIE. The delegation opens a historic new chapter in educational relations, preparing for significantly expanded educational and scientific cooperation, as well as more student exchanges in both directions.

While a few individual US university officials have visited Iran, this is the first university delegation in many years. “Educational diplomacy is at the forefront of opening up dialogue between two countries, often before full diplomatic relations have been restored,” said Goodman. “This was the case with China and Vietnam, and IIE has been leading these efforts in recent years, first with Myanmar and Cuba and now with Iran.”

Pitzer College hopes to serve as a valuable resource for all US-based liberal arts colleges interested in developing educational collaborations with Iranian universities. “Every higher education institution we visited expressed strong support in ways to cultivate undergraduate opportunities for both countries as a way of cultivating educational collaboration at the ground level,” said Ballagh. “While opportunities currently exist for graduate students to study in the US, creating an undergraduate flow of students could have an extraordinary impact on enhancing US-Iranian relations. On my second day in Tehran, I no longer referred to myself as ‘Irish’ when asked in the street of my national origins; if I replied ‘American,’ I received far more exuberant cries of delight and passionate handshakes.”

Pitzer College will take part in the new IIE Iran Higher Education Initiative, which will take a multi-pronged approach aimed at expanding educational cooperation with Iran. In addition to last week’s delegation, the initiative will include a series of activities over the course of the next year, including bi-national conference calls, a white paper on opportunities for developing university partnerships and understanding the regulations that control the establishment of these relationships, workshops for university administrators and activities aimed at increasing exchanges of students and faculty members. The goal is to share resources and knowledge that will bring higher education institutions in the US and Iran closer together, ultimately to enrich the academic experiences of students, faculty, staff and administrators from both countries.

In Tehran, Shiraz and Isfahan, the delegation visited many of Iran’s top universities and research institutes, including: University of Tehran, Shahid Beheshti University, Tabataba’i University, Alzahra University, Sharif University of Technology, University of Shiraz, University of Isfahan, Isfahan University of Technology, the National Research Institute for Genetic Engineering and Biotech (NIGEB), the National Research Institute for Science and Technology (IROST), Royan Stem Cell Institute, the Institute for Research in Fundamental Sciences (IPM) and Zand University. In addition, the delegates held high-level meetings with representatives from the Ministry of Science, Research and Technology, one of three ministries that oversee higher education in Iran, and the coordinating ministry for the delegation.

Delegation members from both countries agreed that there is a growing need for scientific cooperation on major global challenges that affect both the United States and Iran, such as water management, natural disasters such as earthquakes, climate change, food safety, energy and urban development. The delegation revealed that there is significant potential for academic engagement. Specific examples include: double-degree programs at the master’s and PhD levels, short-term study abroad programs for US students, faculty exchanges, joint academic workshops and symposia and 6- to 9-month study visits in the US for Iranian PhD students.

According to IIE’s 2014 Open Doors Report, in 2013-14 there were nearly 10,200 Iranian students and close to 1,400 scholars at US colleges and universities. Iran is the 12th leading country to send international students to the United States. Meanwhile, no US higher education institutions report that their US students were studying abroad in Iran. In 1979, Iran was the leading sender of international students to the United States, with more than 51,000 students enrolled in US universities.

“There is enormous good will toward the United States, especially in the education space,” said Goodman. “A large majority of the Iranian academics and university administrators we met were educated in the United States and many of their children are currently pursuing degrees at US colleges and universities. This provides a foundation on which new educational cooperation can be based.”

The IIE delegation demonstrated for both sides that there is room for strong research and academic cooperation. “But what is lacking are the institutional frameworks that match research and exchange priorities on both sides, so we anticipate there will be major efforts—post June agreement—to negotiate new MOUs and revive old ones with universities and colleges that have programs and industry in Iran,” said Goodman. The IIE white paper, to be published in July, will provide specific recommendations for collaboration.

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