Machen: Academic exchange with Iran beneficial


Published: Wednesday, January 28, 2009 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, January 27, 2009 at 11:38 p.m.

University of Florida president Bernie Machen said Tuesday his trip to Iran showed him that a loosening of travel restrictions to allow more student exchanges would benefit both countries.

"Like it or not, Iran is a major player in the Middle East and our policy of essentially ignoring it doesn't work," he said Tuesday evening, addressing an audience at Pugh Hall.

Machen was one of six U.S. university presidents to visit several Iranian universities on an eight-day trip in November. The trip, organized by the Association of American Universities, was intended to foster academic exchanges between Iran and the U.S.

He spoke Tuesday with his wife, Chris, who joined him on the trip. Their discussion was held on campus before an audience of about 70, including a handful of Iranian students and faculty members.

Iran provided the largest number of foreign exchange students at U.S. universities until the 1979 Iranian revolution, according to Machen. Today the number has dwindled due to the difficulty in obtaining visas - a problem he placed at the foot of the U.S. government.

"It's not their government that's doing it," he said. "It's our country that's doing it."

The U.S. government also prohibits most trade with Iran. Machen said the policy doesn't work, citing examples from new Dell servers at an Iranian university to the latest version of Microsoft Word on a hotel computer.

"The blockade's not working," he said. "They're doing just fine, actually."

Machen focused much of his discussion on the need to allow more academic exchanges. UF currently has 23 Iranian students and eight faculty members. Machen said the university and others could benefit from allowing more Iranian students.

"They would add value to our graduate programs, I'm convinced," he said.

The trip to Iran was conceived in August, at which time Florida had a law banning public funding for trips to Iran and other countries deemed state sponsors of terrorism. Machen said the law was later partially overturned and a foundation paid for the trip, but he and his wife were prepared to pay out of their own pockets.

"When we accepted in August, we thought that this was our Christmas present to one another," he said.

While former President George W. Bush had taken a hard line against Iran, Machen said the trip had the blessing of then-Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice. He said he was hopeful about news that President Barack Obama might open a consulate in Iran for the first time since the revolution.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has received international criticism for denying the Holocaust and pursuing a nuclear program. Machen said the Iranian people showed "open disdain" for their president.

"They made it very clear that he didn't represent the majority of the people in that country," he said.

Chris Machen said she spoke with an Iranian professor who said the country might have nuclear weapons, but the young people there would soon take over. The country's population is overwhelming young and friendlier to the U.S., she said.

"These young people are smart, they're well-educated and they know what (our) country is like," she said.

Some Iranian students in the crowd agreed with the sentiments. While some said that Machen's photos of the trip portrayed an Iran less modern than their experience, they said they appreciated that the couple had made the trip and were promoting exchanges.

One engineering student, who declined to be identified by name for fear of political repercussions, said it had taken him nine months to obtain security clearance to travel to the U.S. He said more Iranians would study here if given the chance.

"There is a huge gap between the people and the government in Iran," he said.

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