TEHRAN — The end of a 32-year teaching career came abruptly for Ahmad Saiee, a professor of international relations at Tehran University.
"It was a month ago one morning at the university, and I was walking back to my office from a class when I heard a group of students demonstrating outside the department and chanting my name, among others," he said. "When I went closer, I heard they were calling for my reinstatement."
Saiee, 68, had picked up his mail from his pigeonhole earlier in the day, but had not opened it. When he rushed back to his office, he found the letter from the personnel department that told him what the students already knew.
"The letter said I had been given 'the honor of retirement,' " Saiee said at his home Saturday, the first day of the workweek in Iran.
Saiee is one of more than 40 professors at Tehran University who last week unexpectedly began their mandatory retirements.
The summary retirements have raised fears of another purge by Islamic hard-liners, this time aimed at reformists who promote the idea that Islam and democracy are compatible. The government contends that the time has come for the long-serving academics to leave their posts.
Professors served with retirement notices include some of the top lecturers at the nation's elite university, such as the dean of the law and international relations school, Hassan Ali Doroudian. Dozens more at other universities also have been given their notices.
All of them were older than 60 or had served for at least three decades. Most have declined to comment on the retirements; others could not be reached.
The retirements led to several days of protests by students who feared that the loss of so many professors in one swoop was the beginning of politically motivated purges at Iran's universities.
"We believe the forced retirements are part of a political move by the government to remove independent-minded lecturers and replace them with those they can lean on," said Vahid Abedini of the university's Islamic Student Assn.
Universities in Iran long have been regarded by many here as the political conscience of the nation. And since the Islamic Revolution in 1979, they have been the scene of political upheavals. Under the general banner of the "Cultural Revolution," the leaders of the uprising sought to impose hard-line Islamist values on the nation's universities and rid them of what they saw as secular and Western influences.
The universities were closed for nearly two years while the administration and curricula were changed, and many professors were dismissed, some accused of being shah loyalists. When the universities reopened, Islamic ombudsmen were employed to police the behavior and appearances of the lecturers and students. Since then, Islamic hard-liners have purged left-leaning and liberal lecturers. Many academics and students fled abroad.
Students and professors fear that some of the latest mandatory retirements are a continuation of the purges begun more than two decades ago, aimed this time at reformists who had been left largely alone during the eight years under reformist President Mohammad Khatami.
Tehran University President Ayatollah Abbasali Amid Zanjani has rejected allegations that the mandatory retirements are politically motivated. He said retirement time had come for many, and they were retired according to the law.
"University lecturers normally retire by the age of 60 unless the university decides it needs a particular professor," said Zanjani, who is 69.
A seminary graduate and expert in Islamic jurisprudence, Zanjani is the first cleric to hold the university presidency.
His appointment in December by the government of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, which did not consult the university, also sparked student protests.
Zanjani did not endear himself to the departing professors when he told the Iranian media last week that some of them "had physical, mental and private problems," that "they were not among the best," or that in his view "retirement is early death."
University lecturers say age usually is not the only criterion for retirement. Administrators also consider teaching and research activities, and consult with the professor and the faculty on staffing needs.
Some professors acknowledge that the retirements could be motivated by a desire to invigorate the university with new blood.
But they find the manner of the dismissals suspect.
"Maybe they really wanted to open the way for younger people, but the way it was done has led to the impression that the decision has political dimensions," said Hussein Saifzadeh, a professor of political science.
"Is this how we are supposed to thank someone who has devoted, without exaggeration, his life to the Law School?" wrote Sadegh Zibakalam, a political scientist at the university, in an open letter to Zanjani protesting the firing of the law school dean.
Former Iranian President Khatami questioned who would replace the retirees. "I am concerned that particular individuals enter the university on the basis of a particular policy," he said.