Here’s how classes work: Holakou Rahmanian turns on his computer early in the morning or late at night. He goes to a website whose address is known only to students, faculty and administrators of his university. Sometimes he's in his pajamas when he logs in. Sometimes, he guesses, his professors are also in their pajamas. In his four years of classes, he has only seen his online teachers' faces once or twice. The bandwidth is saved for their voices and online whiteboards.
Rahmanian, 23, completed a degree in computer science last fall and is close to finishing his second major in mathematics. He is one of about 50,000 students who have studied in unconventional ways at the Bahá’í Institute of Higher Education since it was founded in 1987 to subvert official discrimination by the Iranian government.
When he graduated from high school as one of the top performing mathematics students in Iran, Rahmanian was not eligible to attend an Iranian university because he is a Bahá’í. His faith--which considers Bahá'u'lláh the most recent of a series of divine messengers that includes Muhammad and Jesus—has been under attack in Iran almost since its founding there in the mid-1800s. After the Islamic Revolution of 1979, the new government excluded Bahá’ís from official recognition as a religion; Ayatollah Khomeini denounced its followers as spies and traitors. Bahá’ís in Iran today are not allowed to hold government positions, face property seizures and are routinely discriminated against and harassed.
BIHE began in response to the discrimination largely by correspondence and covert meetings. Pejman Mahboubi, a 39-year-old former BIHE student who this year completed a Ph.D. in math at the University of California, Los Angeles, recalls traveling four or five hours by bus for meetings in Tehran several times a semester. "You are careful without even noticing," he recalls; he and his classmates would leave makeshift classrooms one by one so as not to draw attention and get their hosts into trouble.
In 2007, during Rahmanian's first semester at BIHE, administrators set up a makeshift campus in a rented office space in a four-story building in Tehran. After one semester, many of the faculty members were threatened by Iranian security officers; BIHE leaders were told to vacate the building. The institute pared down its ambitions for physical space.
Now BIHE runs mostly online, over email and rotating websites made safely accessible through Internet protocols that obscure online activity from government monitors. Staff and students avoid certain email and chat clients because they are not secure enough, and they never discuss BIHE over the phone. A few times each semester, students still meet with professors or teaching assistants in person in Tehran, usually at someone's home or business. They arrange the chairs and someone sets up a white board to make the space feel as much like a classroom as possible. Laptops are attached to home televisions to show slides.
"It is kind of fun," Rahmanian recalls, even though it is risky to defy the law in Iran.
In May 2011, a wave of arrests in Tehran targeted BIHE faculty and students. Dozens were detained and interrogated and their homes were searched. One of Rahmanian's classmates told him that he was beaten. Seven of those detained were sentenced to four or five years in prison.
"I was afraid of being home. I tried to be at my relatives' houses because I thought they would attack our home too and arrest me," Rahmanian says. "At the same time, I was always working on my courses very seriously."
Studying this way is not easy. Classes stop and start every time someone is threatened or questioned or websites are taken down and put back up again in a cat-and-mouse game with censors. Rahmanian also faces the same challenges as anyone who studies online: Sometimes his mind wanders or he is distracted by Facebook. And for all of this effort, most BIHE students will have no opportunity to advance their careers with their degrees. Their secretly won degrees mean little in Iran's marketplace and they are excluded from government jobs. So many Bahá’í s learn for the sake of learning.
"The students in BIHE aren't waiting for graduation," explains Mahboubi. "Graduation is a concept, that's it. Nothing very special."
While moving more of its classes online adds greater security, it has also helped the institute become truly global and grow in its course offerings.
And as BIHE grows, its graduates who travel abroad have helped increase its standing even though the institute can never be accredited like other universities. More than 65 universities outside of Iran, about 30 of them in the United States, have accepted BIHE students into their graduate programs.
The more specialized his studies become, the more likely Rahmanian's professors – both Iranian expats and Bahá’í scholars—are teaching him from outside the country. A few non-Bahá’í faculty are compensated with tuition collected at the end of each semester from students who can afford to pay. But almost all of BIHE's 475 faculty and administrative members volunteer their time.
When Mahboubi was a student at BIHE, advanced math courses were not available. But as a professor, Mahboubi logged in from his small, shared office in California and connected with five to 10 students at a time—including Rahmanian for two semesters—to teach undergraduate courses on probability, partial differential equations, and stochastic processes. And Rahmanian currently is a teaching assistant for an advanced mathematics course taught by a professor who is a Ph.D. candidate at UC Berkeley.
This summer, Rahmanian left Iran. He tells his story on a video call from a small town in the middle of Turkey, where he is completing his final BIHE courses and beginning the process of seeking asylum. For security, he does not say much about why he left, just that he is an "accidental refugee" and that this is an emotionally difficult step for him to take. And though he is an exceptional student who will likely go on to bigger and better equipped institutions, Rahmanian feels that he belongs to BIHE. He intends become part of the institute's faculty in the years to come.
"For me, it's part of my identity," he says.