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 politics.
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 leave.
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 training.
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."