Prior to receiving his Ph.D. at Princeton University, UCSB postdoctoral physics researcher Pedram Roushan graduated from the Baha’i Institute for Higher Education. The BIHE is an underground university in Iran seeking to allow Baha’i followers access to education despite systematic persecution by the government.

The BIHE began in 1987 in response to persecution of the country’s Baha’i minority following the 1979 Iranian Revolution and establishment of its Islamic Republic. The faith — practiced by an estimated 7.1 million worldwide — derives its name from the Arabic word for “splendor” and emphasizes the unity of God, religion and mankind. The university offers a rigorous curriculum with hundreds of courses secretly operated within Baha’i homes.

According to Roushan, Iran’s Baha’i population faces blatant discrimination and its followers are barred from studying at public higher education institutions.

“So many Baha’is get rejected from universities, and there are 300,000 people in Iran that are Baha’i,” Roushan said. “During the revolution, all the universities got shut down. When they reopened the universities they only let Muslims in.”

Roushan said state-run colleges have strict admissions processes to keep people of non-Muslim faiths out.

“Universities are not private institutions; they’re run by government,” Roushan said. “The government gives a form that asks ‘What is your religion?’ There is no option for Baha’is because they’re not recognized. The questions on the forms are there to filter non-Muslims from attending universities.”

Although Baha’i shares similarities with Islam, including openness to all religions and the principle that clergy is not necessary, the Iranian government maintains that Baha’i is blasphemous.

Roushan said the government’s prejudice toward non-Muslims forces minorities to find alternative means for college.

“When I was going to high school, the government’s plan was clearly to suppress Baha’is and make [us] a very passive, inactive, useless community struggling for basic needs,” Roushan said. “By the time I was graduating high school, I knew I could not get in [to any universities].”

According to Roushan, Iranian officials raided the BIHE in March and confiscated office materials such as photocopiers and computers before placing government seals on BIHE building doors with threats to prosecute anyone who broke them.

San Diego resident Niknaz Aftahi, a BIHE graduate with a degree in architecture, said constant governmental interference plagued his college experience.

“Things have been very hard,” Aftahi said. “BIHE is an underground university with classes held at home, and it has always been challenging. During the raids in March, [school equipment] was confiscated and many were arrested. Everyone is at risk. Professors are arrested … and hosts of classes are at risk of being interrogated.”

Aftahi said the Baha’i community bands together in the face of adversity to maintain the school’s quality and reputation, which is recognized worldwide by prominent universities who accept BIHE graduates into various post-collegiate programs.

“The interesting thing is that everyone is helping,” Aftahi said. “Everyone is working hard to maintain this precious institute. Through all these years, students have gotten into very prestigious universities, and they are all really shining.”

The school’s success is a testament to the Baha’i peoples’ unbreakable spirit, Roushan said.

“The government wanted students to have low-level jobs somewhere and not be influential members of society,” Roushan said. “But Baha’is, with power and resilience, turned this around.”