When a group of Harvard faculty and administrators traveled to Iran in the fall of 1974, Iranian minister of science and higher education Abdol Samii showed them a site on the southern shore of the Caspian Sea. Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi wished to see a graduate research facility built on the remote site, Samii said. The shah desired to name it Reza Shah Kabir University (RSKU), in honor of his father, the founder of the Pahlavi dynasty.
Samii had invited the Harvard party to visit Iran because the Shah wanted "the oldest and most prestigious University in the United States" to plan the center. Harvard charged the Shah $400,000 to undertake a feasibility study of the project, an agreement that resulted in the 1975 publication of an Academic Planning Report. In 1976, Harvard signed a new contract with the Shah, agreeing, for $500,000, to design a master plan for RSKU. The new university was to be based largely on the present structure of Harvard. "We have modified the forms of the Harvard boards to adapt to the situation in Iran while retaining those central features which have served Harvard well over many years," the report states. At the end of the report, the joint Iran-Harvard Planning Commission concluded by recommending a timetable to open RKSU by the fall of 1980.
Four years later, the site on the Caspian Sea remains barren. Harvard abandoned the project in 1977 and there is still no graduate research facility in Iran. Lester E. Gordon, director of the Harvard Institute for International Development and a commission member, said at the time that the major issue the commission had to consider was the extent of Harvard's involvement in the project. Gordon said there were many reasons Harvard decided not to continue the project, including the objections that were raised by members of the commission against the Iranian government's violations of human rights.
Today, Edward L. Keenan '57, dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences says Harvard's reluctance to continue the project stemmed from feelings that it was doomed to failure from the start. "We were talking about a 10-15 year start-up time," he says. Given a dearth of qualified faculty and administrators to staff the center, prospects for success looked marginal. Few Iranians held high-level degrees and those who did received them from foreign institutions. Harvard could construct the buildings to house RKSU, but staffing it was beyond any outside advisers' power.
Keenan is "perfectly satisfied" with Harvard's involvement in the project, and says today its connection with the Shah's government do not disturb him. But some criticize Harvard's involvement with RKSU. Shahrokh Rouhani an Iranian graduate student in the Division of Applied Sciences, says that while he doesn't disagree with the goal of enlightening a backward environment, a facility like RSKU "would actually have created an island in society." Rouhani argues that while "basic deficiencies" still plague Iran's high school system, a graduate research facility cannot benefit the Iranians.
Harvard was one of seven American universities to sign training and exchange agreements with the shah's government, the largest contract going to Georgetown University for $11 million. But Harvard was the only one that agreed to build a university. In the Academic Planning Report, officials describe RKSU as "a unique venture in higher education." Such a project would certainly be "unique" if it ever saw the light of day, but at this time in Iran, as Keenan says, "it would be very foresighted or very foolish of anyone to try to start up a university."