Northwestern will hire five additional professors specializing in Middle Eastern issues, bolstering its curriculum in an area that a professor specializing in the region called "minimally represented and requiring immediate attention."
The effort, which began several months ago, was "galvanized" by the foundation of a NU campus in Qatar, NU President Henry Bienen said.
NU is following in the footsteps of other institutions by increasing resources devoted to a region of growing economic and political importance.
It also reflects increased student interest in the region.
"Because of all the news about the Middle East, petroleum, terrorism and Iran, the Middle East is very important," said Muhammad Umar, a religion professor, whose Introduction to Islam class filled up in just three days after pre-registration began for Winter Quarter.
Both professors who had been offered positions so far have accepted them, and the recruitment effort is ongoing, Bienen said in a Monday interview.
The administration has received a substantial and flexible donation to fund the expansion, Bienen said. The donor's name has not been revealed.
A LENGTHY EFFORT
Bienen, who has lived in Turkey and Egypt, first considered expanding the university's Middle East offerings almost a decade ago.
He and the president of American University of Beirut had spoken about a joint project between the two schools, adding more American studies. The two presidents had been going to the Saudi Arabian government for funding when the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, occurred.
"It wasn't a propitious time to do this," Bienen said. "Things were very chaotic and it made it difficult to think about this. It sort of just petered out, but it didn't diminish my interest."
In 2006, the university revisited the project, asking history professor Carl Petry to examine university resources devoted to the region and make recommendations about how NU could improve its course offerings.
At the same time, an offer from the government of Qatar for NU to establish a campus directed attention back to the Middle East, Bienen said.
"Qatar came calling to us to put a flag down in the Middle East, and it galvanized us to use the opportunity to get to work again," said Bienen. "Qatar was an opportunity to move forward in a concerted way."
STATE OF AFFAIRS
Petry, who specializes in the region, began the survey in 2006.
"The Middle East was minimally represented and required immediate attention," he said.
Weinberg has an Asian and Middle East Studies department, which offers courses focusing on both the Middle East and China, Japan and Korea.
Other schools have more focused departments. On Feb. 7, Yale University announced the creation of a major in Modern Middle East Studies to accompany its department in Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations.
The University of Chicago has a long-established program in the region, including a Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations. Harvard University and Washington University in St. Louis have similar offerings.
At NU, the bulk of the Asian and Middle East offerings focus on Asian and Asian-American studies. Classes pertaining to the Middle East make up 10 of 36 total courses offered in Winter and Spring quarters of 2008.
The Arabic program is even smaller, with only two professors and not enough courses to offer an Arabic major. The department has seen its largest growth in the past few years, professor Mohammad Abdeljaber said.
"I think for a university our size it's just something we need," said Chris Svendsen, a Weinberg senior and economics major who is in his fourth year of studying Arabic. "If I was in high school and knowing this was something I'd really want to study, I'd choose a different school than Northwestern."
The Arabic department is currently looking to recruit an additional instructor and hopes to make the language an ad hoc major, Abdeljaber said.
A Chinese language major was added in Fall Quarter 2006, and Abdeljaber said he doesn't see why Arabic can't follow.
"If the program growth is sufficient enough to add enough classes to support that, we would eventually succeed in creating a major or minor," Abdeljaber said.
Northwestern is recruiting for five positions; two in political science, one in history, one in anthropology, and one in ancient Near Eastern and Mediterranean visual cultures.
A gift from the Keyman family, announced Monday, will also expand NU's offerings in Modern Turkish Studies, university spokesman Al Cubbage said.
The program was launched in 2005 with another grant from the family and invites visiting scholars to address issues facing modern Turkey.
Political science professor Elizabeth Hurd said she hopes the additional faculty will allow for the creation of classes in the Israel-Palestinian conflict, diaspora, and immigration.
"All the developments across different disciplines all point to the Middle East studies. We're building a sense of momentum, but we don't have anything in the works," she said. "We're excited about the development and appreciate the support from the administration. Those of us who have an interest in this area of the world would like to see more classes offered."
Although it may take a couple of years to recruit all the needed faculty, Bienen is optimistic about the future.
"We're starting to get some critical mass," he said.
Students agree the expansion of Middle Eastern studies classes will better help them understand what is going on in the region.
"It will definitely help fulfill the growing interest of students, especially given the current political climate and international climate," said Malorie Medellin, a Medill senior with a double major in Asian and Middle Eastern studies.
"This is an issue that is not going to go away... The stronger the department, the better the university will be to produce sound students who could affect this issue."