Board of Regents, Supreme Leaders

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Earlier this month, the UT Board of Regents denied President Bill Powers Jr.’s request to make an official statement about Iran’s imprisonment of Omid Kokabee, a UT physics graduate student. The Regents cited a rule in the Rules and Regulations of the Board of Regents that prohibits university personnel from making official statements on behalf of the university that relate to political or controversial issues.

A bright, promising physics student — who was recognized as such by both Iranian and U.S. scientists — Kokabee was arrested and detained in his native Iran in February 2011. After a brief trial, during which the prosecution presented few facts, an Iranian court sentenced Kokabee to 10 years imprisonment for “communicating with a hostile government” and “illegal earnings.”

Kokabee, who completed his undergraduate education in Iran, came to UT in the fall of 2010 to earn a doctoral degree in quantum optics. During his first winter break, Kokabee went to Tehran to visit his family. Iranian authorities arrested him at the airport before he boarded his return flight to America. Kokabee was taken to Evin Prison, in northwestern Iran, where he was put in solitary confinement. During his May 2012 trial, Iranian state-controlled television broadcast eerie footage of Kokabee’s fellow prisoners thanking the Iranian government for arresting them and begging for clemency. Kokabee denied all charges against him.

Worldwide, members of the science community have denounced Kokabee’s arrest and the punishment levied against him. After Kokabee’s trial, the Rector of the University of Oslo, Ole Petter Otterson, sent an open letter to the Iranian leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, asking that Kokabee receive a fair trial.

But at UT, the only official response to Kokabee’s unjust circumstances has been silence.

In late June, President Powers attempted to change that. Powers wrote to the Board of Regents, seeking a waiver to the rule that prevents him from speaking out about political or controversial issues in his capacity as university president.

In response, Chancellor of the Board Francisco Cigarroa denied Powers’ request, writing that only the board president or UT system chancellor may comment upon “matters of a political or obviously controversial nature, which represent an official position of the UT system or any institution or department thereof.” The underlying logic of the rule: If other university personnel — Powers ­— take formal, public positions of a political nature, their view may be confused as being the official position of the public institution, according to Anthony de Bruyn, a UT System spokesman. Cigarroa encouraged Powers to reach out to human rights groups on his own. The rule cited by Cigarroa would allow Powers to do this so long as he did not claim to do so in his capacity as president of UT.

With the trial and imprisonment of Omid Kokabee, a physicist’s career and a fellow student’s life has been arbitrarily torn asunder. What makes sense about an official at a university in Oslo being more liberated to speak up against the injustice of Kokabee’s circumstances than the president of Kokabee’s own university? Is the Board of Regents’ rule-following really a nose-thumbing gesture directed at President Powers, who has sparred with the board about separate issues in recent months?

If yes, the Board of Regents has played a card that reflects poorly on it and UT. By effectively silencing UT’s institutional voice about Kokabee, the Board of Regents allows the school to join the side of Kokabee’s captors, courtroom judge and those dominant in the Iranian government who favor silencing political discourse and individual rights.

Historically, university presidents exercising their First Amendment rights have injected more intelligence into all sorts of debates and by doing so, raised the profile of their schools. Nicholas Butler, who served as president of Columbia University in New York from 1902 to 1945, advised American presidents, campaigned for Prohibition, played a significant role in Republican politics and won a Nobel Peace Prize for his campaign against war as an appropriate, diplomatic action. Before he became U.S. President, Woodrow Wilson, as president of Princeton University between 1902 and 1910, fought what he thought was a culture of elitism and smallness at the school, and sought to enlarge students’ worldview at the same time as he enlarged the university.

Closer to home, UT had its own champion of the bully pulpit: former university president Homer Price Rainey, who raised his voice for academic freedom.

But the conclusion of Rainey’s tenure left our school with a problematic legacy. In 1944, Rainey defended an English professor’s right to teach John Dos Passos’ novel “USA.” The Board of Regents responded to his outspokenness by firing Rainey. Subsequently, Rainey received national credit for his courage and, according to the UT Faculty Council’s website, became “a symbol for academic freedom on the campus in the decades that followed.” The episode marked UT as a school governed by an intolerant board.

In 2012, times have changed. Nationwide, few university presidents, in between their fundraising obligations, enter political debates with gusto. But nonetheless the Board of Regents should take lessons from its own history and remember that freedom of former university professors to add their voice to the national and international dialogue speaks to everything worth defending in this country and absent in Iran.