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Why Rafsanjani’s real lasting legacy in Iran isn’t in politics

While long considered a pillar of Iran’s post-revolutionary political establishment, Ayatollah Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani’s most lasting legacy is more likely in higher education.

Much has been said about the political legacy of former Iranian President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani following his death Jan. 8 at the age of 82 from a heart attack, but his most lasting legacy will be in higher education. Ayatollah Rafsanjani was among the founders of Islamic Azad University (IAU) and served as head of its Founders' Committee, equivalent to chairman of the board, for three decades.

Iran's student population today exceeds 4.5 million, more than 5% of the population. In other words, one in every 20 Iranians is enrolled in some sort of post-secondary school diploma program. Researchers estimate that half of Iranians aged 18 to 24 are students, with 85% paying for their studies. This has created a steady revenue stream for IAU.

In addition to being an education facility, IAU, with 400 campuses, is also a major property owner. When helping to establish IAU in the 1980s as parliament speaker and Friday prayer leader in Tehran, Rafsanjani took inspiration from Iran's age-old seminaries. In one of his Friday prayer sermons, he reminded the devout, “Seminary students do not enjoy free education. They return to their towns and villages to work. When they are back in the seminary, they use their earnings to pay their tuition.” Thus, he provided the rationale tuition fees at a time when the government was unable to provide free higher education to the increasing number of students. IAU became the solution, using tuition fees to also rapidly expand.

Today, IAU dwarf's Iran’s public universities. For the fall 2016 semester, IAU enrolled 1.62 million students. It offers a wide range of majors at both the undergraduate and graduate levels, thus attracting many students but also much criticism. It has fulfilled Rafsanjani's vision of bringing higher education to every city across the country, but at the same time, many charge that its degree programs do not train professionals, but rather degree holders, who cannot be employed because they graduate without the necessary skills.

Indeed, IAU’s rapid expansion and degree offerings have promoted many to argue that its focus is on quantity rather than quality. One common criticism is the lack of connectivity between its programs and the Iranian job market. College graduates have the highest unemployment rate in the country. In 2014, it was estimated that close to 1.2 million college graduates were unemployed. This has led some to conclude that the university's programs lack the standards needed in higher education.

IAU is not a truly private institution. It was founded by a decree from the founder of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, and among its founders were some members of the Supreme Council of Cultural Revolution, the authority overseeing higher education. The current supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, sat on the Founders' Committee, as did Ahmad Khomeini, Ayatollah Khomeini’s son, and Ayatollah Mousavi Ardebili, then head of the judiciary.

IAU owns an estimated 10 million square meters of property across Iran. Its steady cash flow from tuition fees has made it a major developer. Several construction companies are contracted to work on IAU properties, with its main office overseeing millions of dollars in expansion and maintenance. One could say that IAU, with assets valued at $200 billion, has a business model based on higher education rather than the other way around.

Thus, it is perhaps of no surprise that its critics have accused it of land grabbing and profit seeking. In 2009, the first phase of a power struggle between Rafsanjani and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad concerned accusations of corruption involving control over IAU and its campuses. Rafsanjani and his allies agreed to a compromise allowing them to retain some control over IAU, keeping some committee seats and crafting new regulations for university management. During the settlement, Ali Akbar Velayati, the head of the Expediency Council’s Center for Strategic Research, was floated as a possible candidate to lead IAU as president.

Rafsanjani is the third member among IAU's founders to die in recent years. As the head of the Founders' Committee, he played an influential and dominant role, and his importance to the organization means that his death has left a significant vacuum. Following Rafsanjani's funeral, some observers suggested that Hassan Khomeini, a grandson of Ayatollah Khomeini with ties to the Reformist camp, would succeed him, while others speculated about Hamid Mirzadeh, a former vice president, close associate of Rafsanjani and a member of the IAU Founders' Committee. Khamenei resolved the growing issue of succession with an edict appointing Velayati, also the supreme leader’s foreign policy adviser, to head the Founders' Committee.

Some have criticized the process because they believe that electing a new leader of the Founders’ Committee is within the committee’s prerogative. Conservative media reported that some committee members apparently believed that the founding articles were not clear in this regard. These members therefore reportedly asked the supreme leader to step in and resolve the matter. Given the nature of IAU, its network of campuses and the size of its student body, one wonders whether a decision by any other authority in Iran would have been acceptable to those coveting the chairmanship of such a vast organization.

As Velayati assumes the mantle of leadership, there are questions about IAU's future. There is speculation about whether the organization will move toward decentralization with an agenda of playing an active role in economic regeneration or whether it will continue to function as a centralized institution. Others wonder if IAU will adopt new approaches to the social sciences and restructure the curriculum to more strongly reflect Islamic teachings. Regardless of the answers to these questions, for now, the only thing clear is that IAU is perhaps Rafsanjani’s most significant legacy to Iran and Iranians. 

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