Disputes Roil the Middle East Center at the U. of Utah

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at gmail.com
Fri Jun 13 14:45:39 UTC 2008

Disputes Leave the Middle East Center at the U. of Utah in Turmoil


Disputes Roil the Middle East Center at the U. of Utah

One of the oldest National Resource Centers for promoting the study of
critical languages is seeking new leadership after disagreements
between some faculty members and a dean.

Controversial faculty reassignments and resignations in March of this
year, following other disputes, have left the Middle East Center at
the University of Utah in turmoil. The tumult comes only a year before
the university must reapply for the grant from the U.S. Department of
Education that supports the center, which is among the oldest such
academic units in the country. In mid-March, Robert D. Newman, dean of
the College of Humanities, removed two professors from joint
appointments to the Middle East Center. The professors, Peter J.
Sluglett, a historian and an expert on Iraq, and Harris Lenowitz, a
scholar of Hebrew in the languages and literature department, are both
veterans in their fields.

In a letter to Mr. Lenowitz, who has served in the center for 35
years, the dean wrote: "It has come to my attention that you have
contributed consistently toward creating an atmosphere in the Middle
East Center that lacks collegiality and can no longer be tolerated."
Both Mr. Sluglett and Mr. Lenowitz were reassigned full time to their
home departments. But the decision quickly triggered the resignations
of Ibrahim A. Karawan, a professor of political science and director
of the center since 2000, and Peter von Sivers, an associate professor
of history, who served as the center's associate director. As the
university searches for a new director, the center will be run by
interim managers: an associate dean and two co-chairs of the
department of languages and literature—who specialize in German,
Russian, and Spanish.

The turmoil at the center broke into public view via rancorous
exchanges between the dean and Middle East faculty members in local
newspapers, e-mailed statements, and even public lectures. In an
interview with The Chronicle, Mr. Karawan, a native of Egypt, compared
the dean's governance style to that of Egyptian President Hosni
Mubarak. And in a lengthy message e-mailed to faculty members at the
College of Humanities, Mr. Newman lamented the group's "noisy
posturing" and undignified airing of dirty linen.

Some of the more than 20 faculty members associated with the center
worry that the longer it remains leaderless, the more its reputation
will be damaged. They also fret about the university's chances of
retaining the prestigious $1.7-million Department of Education grant
that supports it. The wrangling over the Utah center also underscores
the larger pressures—financial, structural, and political—that affect
many area-studies centers supported under Title VIof the Higher
Education Act. Those centers must reconcile increasing government
mandates and scrutiny with the universities' larger interests and

Legacy and Logjam

Established in 1960, Utah's Middle East Center is one of only 17
designated National Resource Centers to receive Title VI funds. Those
grants, administered by the Department of Education, promote
instruction in languages deemed critical to national-security
interests and to prepare students for government service or advanced
research. The university receives $428,682 a year in institutional
support and language scholarships from the Department of Education.
Its institutional Title VI grant is the fifth largest among the Middle
East National Resource Centers, bigger than that of either Harvard or
Princeton. But the grants are awarded in four-year increments, and in
a year's time, Utah's center must demonstrate that it can continue to
meet the Title VI mandates in order to keep the federal subsidy.

Observers point to the center's regularly scheduled five-year review,
conducted last spring, as the first flashpoint in the current
imbroglio. External reviewers noted retention problems within the
center and wrote that several faculty members had "commented on the
negative impact of the departure of several women faculty members in
languages for positions at other universities." When the review was
completed, Mr. Newman filed a request with the university's associate
vice president for human resources and the associate vice president
for diversity requesting their help in "addressing the perception that
a sexist environment exists in the center that contributes to
retention issues involving women faculty."

Tensions also flared earlier this year over a failed search for an
Arab specialist that broke down along organizational lines. Faculty
members in the languages-and-literature department backed a scholar of
Arab literature, while faculty members with joint appointments to the
Middle East Center cited Title VI's emphasis on language instruction
in arguing for a specialist in Arabic and applied linguistics. No hire
was made. A month after the failed search, in March, the string of
reassignments and resignations began. Outraged faculty members have
accused the dean of decimating the center and of punishing two
distinguished scholars without sufficient evidence or due process.

The dean, however, said that the reassignments amount to little more
than an administrative rearranging of budget lines. The only practical
effect is that Mr. Sluglett and Mr. Lenowitz will no longer have a say
in the hiring and tenure-and-promotions committees within the center,
he said. "That did not remove their privilege to teach in the Middle
East Center, to work on student committees in the Middle East Center,
or to be involved in events in the Middle East Center," said Mr.
Newman. "They are still affiliated with the Middle East Center."

Mr. Newman said that the decision was prompted by concerns about the
climate for younger female professors at the center. Over the past few
years, four of the five faculty members who left the center were
women. The external review panel's conclusions reinforced his concerns
about what he called an "atmosphere of unprofessional behavior that
led to gender inequities in the center."

Mr. Newman, who received a university award in April for promoting
"equity and diversity," said he didn't want to risk losing more women
from the Middle East Center. "One doesn't want to preside over a
center where there's a turnstile of young faculty leaving," he said.
But, he added, "no one has been charged with sexual discrimination. No
one has been charged with sexism."

Some of those former center staff members, however, dispute the notion
that they left because of sexual discrimination. Shortly after Mr.
Newman made his initial reassignments, four female faculty members who
had left the center since 1999 wrote to the dean to say that it was
the university's low salaries, and not bias, that induced them to

Among them is Roberta M. Micallef, a Turkish scholar who left Utah in
2005 to take a visiting assistant professorship at Boston University.
She said that Professors Lenowitz and Sluglett were supportive
colleagues and friends, and were among the first people that she
notified after giving birth to her son. "They do have strong opinions,
but in academia that should not be a problem," she said. "The faculty
meetings certainly were lively, but I did not feel as a woman in any
way stymied or censored or anything like that."

She left, Ms. Micallef said, because Boston University offered a far
better salary, and its location provided better job opportunities for
her husband and a chance for them to be near their extended families.

Threats to Title VI?

Some faculty members fear that the turbulence may risk the loss of
more than the center's female staff members. The center itself could
be threatened.

Mr. Sluglett, who served as the director of the center from 1994 to
2000, said that he has often been at loggerheads with Mr. Newman over
faculty appointments. Like centers at many other universities, Utah's
Middle East Center lost 30 percent of its faculty during the recession
in the 1990s. However, said Mr. Sluglett, Utah has not been in a hurry
to replace those vacant positions, despite the increased interest and
demand for programs in Middle East languages and cultures since the
terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.

Some outside observers see the Utah center's troubles as rooted, at
least in part, in its unusual structure. At most other universities,
the Title VI center is conterminous with a department of Middle East
or Near Eastern studies. The department handles salary and tenure
matters, and the center serves as a locus for the outreach, fellowship
grants, library collections, and interdisciplinary programs mandated
by the Department of Education.

At Utah, however, core Middle East faculty members hold joint
appointments in the center and in home departments, while some
affiliated faculty members hold appointments in a department only, but
teach and participate in the center's programs.

Given its structure, there was bound to be trouble, says Roger M.A.
Allen, a professor of Arabic and chair of the department of Near
Eastern languages and civilization at the University of Pennsylvania,
which also holds a Title VI grant for a Middle East Center.

Mr. Allen was one of three external reviewers called in to evaluate
Utah's Middle East Center in the spring of 2007. Chief among the
committee's recommendations was that Utah restructure its center. With
the center's faculty under the jurisdiction of two different deans of
the humanities and social sciences, he said, administrative problems
were inevitable. "This seems liable to be at least complicated,
bureaucratic, and requires a lot of diplomacy and tact."

The center must reapply for Title VI funding in the fall of
2009—leaving one year to get its act together. Mr. von Sivers, who
will retain his joint appointment despite his resignation as the
center's associate director, wonders whether, given the infighting at
the university, Utah will be able to persuade anyone of sufficient
stature to accept the directorship of the center. He also worries that
the handful of tenure or tenure-track faculty members with joint
appointments to the center are not sufficient to coordinate its
administration or oversee its graduate admissions and language

The center's capacities for Arabic language instruction are
particularly thin, said Mr. von Sivers, and that instruction is at the
moment overseen by teaching assistants. Several faculty members
affiliated with the center are due to retire within the next five
years as well.

Mandates and Competition

Mr. von Sivers also observed that there was increased competition for
such federal money. With a surge in interest in Middle East studies
and a dearth of qualified faculty members, more and more universities
are seeking to build capacity in Arabic, Persian, and Turkish, and are
competing for instructors and government funds.

"Congress is throwing money at any university that wants to establish
a Middle East program or teach Middle East languages," said Mr. von
Sivers. "It would be absurd for our university to let a 50-year-old
center go in a time period when foreign-language knowledge is more
than ever critical for the United States."

Dean Newman, however, believes that fears about the center's viability
are unfounded. The interim leadership of the center has already
consulted with the Department of Education, Mr. Newman said, and he is
optimistic that the center will find a new director by January.

"We are very much on track to apply for the next Title VI grant," he
said. "In many ways, this is an opportunity to broaden rather than
diminish the center," said Mr. Newman, who added that he would like to
extend the focus of the center beyond public policy and critical
languages to include faculty in fine arts, gender issues, ethnic
studies, and health sciences.

The university is also seeking a Title VI grant for its new center in
Asian studies. "We very much want two Title VI centers, and we
understand what it takes to get them," said the dean.

But the situation at Utah also points to some of the financial
tensions of reconciling the priorities of a federally supported center
with the interests of the university at large.

A National Academies committee that reviewed the federal Title VI and
Fulbright-Hays international-education programs concluded in a report,
published in 2007, that most National Resource Centers are chronically
short of funds, and Utah's center is no exception.

Mr. Newman estimated that the university spent around $60,000 a year
in subsidizing courses in Hebrew, Persian, and Turkish. Those courses,
which can have enrollments of as few as three or four students in a
class, are mandated by the Title VI grant.

"Given that the Title VI grant asks us to teach all of these
languages, and I believe it is important to do so," he said, "unlike
in other areas of the college where I've asked departments to cancel
classes with low enrollments, I have never done that in the Middle
East Center."


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