In his last year as chancellor of UC Davis, Larry Vanderhoef is in no way taking it easy. The long-serving chancellor embarks on his second trip to Iran tomorrow.
Chancellor Vanderhoef will make the visit along with five other American university leaders as part of a delegation sponsored by the American Association of Universities. On the seven-day trip, the group will visit several Iranian universities in the interest of strengthening scientific and educational ties between the two countries.
“The belief is that strong academic ties can really be the basis for greater exchange and understanding between our two countries,” Chancellor Vanderhoef said. “I think everybody believes that this is a small step in opening the doors that seem right now to be almost closed.“
The AAU organized the trip in response to an invitation from the Sharif University of Technology. Other attendees include the presidents of Cornell, Carnegie Mellon and Rice Universities.
“Most of the presidents and chancellors who were invited have either themselves or their institutions participated in exchanges with Iran,” said Barry Toiv, spokesperson for the AAU. “Chancellor Vanderhoef visited Iran in 2004 and was a logical candidate for the trip.“
Vanderhoef’s 2004 visit was reported to be the first high-level university visit to Iran since the country’s 1979 revolution. While his decision to make the trip drew considerable criticism given the political climate of the time, Vanderhoef maintained the gesture was not political.
“We’re simply one university wanting to talk to another university about ways in which we can work together,” Vanderhoef wrote in an online journal during the trip. “And, perhaps in the process, one small step can be taken toward a return to normalcy in the Middle East.“
Vanderhoef said he was left with a very positive impression of Iran’s system of higher education after his trip. He also noted that prior to the 1979 revolution, Iran sent more students to U.S. universities than any other country.
“We ran into alum after alum and they all have a very strong positive feeling about the U.S. and want their children to have the same opportunity they had to come here for education.“
Vice Provost of Outreach and International Programs William Lacy accompanied Vanderhoef in 2004 along with several other UC Davis administrators.
“We visit four universities and they all had some University of California educated faculty,” Lacy said. “I would encourage the chancellor to connect with some of the hundreds of UC Davis alumni who live in Iran and to continue to explore ways to collaborate.“
As a follow-up to the trip, Graduate School of Management Dean Nicole Biggert visited Iran in 2006 to establish ties and meet candidates for an exchange program. As a result, two Iranian MBA students studied at Davis in 2007 and two more in 2008.
“There was the potential for quite a lot more,” Vanderhoef said. “When we went, Khatami was president and that changed right after. They got a more conservative president and he seems not as open to those kinds of exchanges.“
However the problem stems from both sides, as it’s often difficult, if not impossible, to get an entry visa from either country, he said.
“It’s getting better but the further back you go and the closer you get to 9/11 the more difficulties we’ve had,” he said.
Vanderhoef said that with this upcoming trip it seems both countries have realized the way to improve their relationship might be through universities.
“These visits themselves are indications that Iran is opening up,” he said. “And the State Department is very aware of this trip – they know and approve.“
The State Department will sponsor subsequent visits to the U.S. by presidents of Iranian universities following the AAU visit, Vanderhoef said.
“I’m very hopeful about this,” he said. “Universities have a role to play at this level and this is an indication that they are.“
ALYSOUN BONDE can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org