‘This is the UG, not Iran’

Associate professor Sepideh Yousefzadeh was a scholar at risk not too long ago, because in her home country Iran it’s dangerous to research social safety. And then Susanne Täuber was fired, at her own safe University of Groningen.

I had a dream last night. 

It is 2010, I’m still living in Maastricht, and I’m anxiously looking to find a way to stay in the Netherlands. I talk to a friend on the phone and she tells me I may be eligible to receive support from Scholars At Risk (SAR). I look up their website. It’s a global network that aims to protect freedom and safety in higher education, and it consists of predominantly Western institutions and universities that host scholars from Iran, Afghanistan, China, and Turkey, among others.

I am exhausted. The uprising after the presidential election in Iran, the violence of the protests, and the imprisonment of my close friends have taken their toll on me. I look out the window of the small attic I rent in Maastricht and feel the cold air outside. My body is here, but my mind is somewhere far, far away from here. I decide to apply for SAR’s support.

I cannot stop thinking about Susanne Täuber and the events as they develop at my university. Not too long ago, I was a scholar at risk. The irony is, in a country that hosted me so that my academic freedom could be protected, scholars who work on social safety in academia are not protected and can be fired. 

Where I come from, being an activist-academic is a red line

SAR’s map of academic freedom worldwide does not include any Western university that challenges academic freedom. In all the events that SAR arranges (and I can’t say I’m not critical of the colonial aspect of them), it was an accepted and unquestionable fact that academic freedom is challenged in non-Western autocratic settings. Thus, it is taken for granted that Western universities are safe spaces and that they are in a position to protect academic freedom. Our own University of Groningen is a member of SAR.

I am angry about what happened to Susanne Täuber and the court’s verdict. I may sound too naive in saying this, but my surprise weighs a lot more than my anger. Where I come from, a country with an autocratic system in place, teachings or research on poverty, gender, or social justice could be risky and lead to backlash. Where I come from, being an activist-academic is a red line. 

Therefore, academics who do research on social justice or academics who are involved with activism are aware of the risks. They’re aware of the potential consequences; verdicts like ‘propaganda against the establishment’ or ‘a threat against national security’. 

As a result, many scholars have left the country, many have been silenced, some have left academia, and many are in prison. Any incidence of arrest or silencing still hurts beyond imagination, but it is often not shocking news.

If being a SAR member cannot prevent Susanne’s firing, where is the hope then?

The verdict for Susanne is shocking to me because it resonates a lot with what I experienced under an autocratic system. The university that is firing Susanne Täuber once championed Aletta Jacobs and is a SAR member aiming to protect academic freedom. If these facts cannot prevent Susanne’s firing, where is the hope then?

When I bring up the parallels with Iran, my Dutch friends and colleagues could easily feel offended by such comparisons. I cannot help but wonder if a democratic and ‘liberal’ place like the Netherlands can afford to normalise such silencing incidences. 

What happened to Susanne reminded me of the fear and threats that academics experience in Iran. Susanne Täuber has voiced the structural challenges and the gendered and hierarchical struggles of our university. This should not be happening to her.

I look into the mirror and it is Susanne looking at me. I wake up. I am working at the University of Groningen. This is not happening in Iran. This is not happening in an autocratic country. It is happening at the University of Groningen. Susanne is fired.

Sepideh Yousefzadeh Faal Daghati is an associate professor of intersectional wellbeing and decoloniality at Campus Fryslân. 



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