Tehran University students stage a protest in 2009. Photo: Mowjcamp

Tehran University students stage a protest in 2009. Photo: Mowjcamp

Backpack-carrying art students may not immediately spring to mind when one conjures up images of political protestors.

While the Arab Spring enmeshed art with political dissent throughout the region, artists themselves (particularly those studious academic types) are not traditionally seen as the leaders of street rallies. When we stretch our imaginations a bit, we might envision demonstrations led by graffiti artists in Cairo, cartoonists in the Gulf who satirize corrupt regimes, or even musicians in Iran, but a PhD candidate in the Faculty of Applied Art?

Students at Tehran University of Art, however, recently staged a rally for the forth consecutive week, protesting the campus’ increasingly severe security climate and calling for the removal of the university’s dean, Saeed Kashan Falla.

Tehran’s art students represent one of many university communities in Iran and across the Arab world banding together to protest heightened security on campuses, demand freedom of assembly for student groups, and push for the reinstatement of classmates ousted for their political activism.

As Iranian students take to the streets, they highlight the increasingly politicized nature of education in Iran and its Arab neighbors. Reza Faraji Dana, Iran’s new minister for science, research and technology – a post whose jurisdiction extends to higher education – was confirmed by parliament just two months ago on October 28 after “many hours of debate.” As University World News explains, Dana’s position oversees “a sensitive portfolio given the role of students and universities in opposing government policies and their ability to rally public support.”

While political activism is deeply embedded in Iran’s university culture, this recent wave of protests has witnessed students calling for government accountability with renewed vigor. Tehran University Art students wrote a widely circulated letter to Minister Faraji Dana, calling for an investigation into the state of academic freedom and security at their university, and specifically demanding Dana remove the university’s dean.

As students from all disciplines join the movement for academic freedom and open campus cultures, the new minister is in a precarious spot. Being receptive to student opinion is not merely a matter of education policy. Rather, it is a tactical decision about how to best heed the demands of an increasingly politicized constituency.

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