The University of Utah's Middle East Center is becoming "a microcosm of the Middle East" because of a collapse of academic collegiality that is making it nearly impossible to hire and retain women on the center's faculty, the university's dean of humanities said Monday in defense of actions he took against two veteran faculty members.
In a letter to faculty and students, Robert Newman said the center's "dysfunctional" climate prompted him to remove the two professors from the center's governance - an action that triggered the resignation of the center's director, Ibrahim Karawan. Newman's broader aim is to widen the prestigious center's interdisciplinary mission and funding sources and correct a gender imbalance on its faculty.
"To do so requires a professional environment," wrote Newman, who also is the U.'s associate vice president for interdisciplinary studies. "It cannot be a setting for academic warfare, political infighting and disingenuous posturing."
A political scientist from Egypt, Karawan announced his resignation last week in protest of the reassignment of Hebrew scholar Harris Lenowitz and historian Peter Sluglett to their home departments. Both were longtime MEC faculty with leadership roles at the center. The 48-year-old center is one of 15 Middle East centers operating as national resource centers under "Title VI" grants from the U.S. Department of Education. It provides $250,000 a year to the U.'s center.
Karawan pointed Monday to the continuing grant as proof the center functions well.
"Which center doesn't have problems?" Karawan asked. "Do you want to improve the conditions? You have me as an ally."
However, he said the "secrecy" with which Newman took action against the professors disturbed him, particularly the dean's refusal to meet with Sluglett with his lawyer present.
"I got to know the dean well and admire his brilliance and his contribution to the university. But his position in this case is not the most appropriate," he said. "It pains me that my friendship with him would disintegrate, but I couldn't go forward."
Meanwhile, the U.'s top administrators have lent "full support" to Newman. The dean "acted prudently, within his authority as dean, and in the interests of the university. We believe his actions will help improve the academic and educational climate of the center, and we will continue to work with him to sustain and to enhance its stature," President Michael Young and his top deputy, David Pershing, said in a statement.
Newman had been airing his concerns about the center for the past year with Karawan and key administrators, and all generally agreed "the situation needed to be corrected," he wrote. He sought guidance from the U.'s general counsel, John Morris, who affirmed his authority to move faculty appointments. The subsequent actions against Sluglett and Lenowitz restrict only their participation in hiring and retention, promotion and tenure, and have no bearing on their ability to teach and do research at the MEC.
Newman said the conflict worsened when the search for an Arabic language professor devolved into shouting matches. The dean's chief concerns center on the lack of women professors. Of the five faculty who have left in recent years, four were women. Two requested that their joint appointments be moved because of "the oppressive environment" at the center, Newman wrote.
"The facts show we have a situation with gender inequity," he said in an interview Monday. "We have only one woman in a tenure-track position. In the 21st century and at a center dealing with a region where gender equity is an issue, that's a problematic situation."
Newman also intends to extend the center's purview to embrace law, health sciences, fine arts, education, gender studies and ethnic studies. Currently the center is heavy on languages and social sciences. He also wants to diversify funding sources.
"The Title VI grant is great and I'll do everything to shore it up so we continue to have it in the future, but there are opportunities for securing external grants," he said. To that end, Newman appointed associate professor of history Bradley Parker as the MEC's new graduate director and principle investigator overseeing the Title VI grant. Parker, who is skilled at securing grants, has a joint appointment to the center teaching ancient Near Eastern history and archaeology.
Newman promised recent changes will not disrupt the center's academic mission.