Bahman Baktiari, an Iranian-born political scientist from the University of Maine, has been chosen to direct the University of Utah's Middle East Center, a major step toward resolving a leadership crisis that left the acclaimed center without a director and two veteran faculty last spring.
Following a national search spanning six months, humanities dean Robert Newman hired Baktiari last week.
"My bottom line is I see the students as the most important component of our center. My job is to make the center the most premier center for students," Baktiari said in a phone interview Monday from his office in Orono, Maine. He plans to represent the U. this weekend at a Middle East Studies Association conference in Washington, DC. His wife Lily Alavi, who is active in organizations to prevent domestic violence, will receive adjunct appointments in the U.'s College of Social Work and to teach French.
The scholar reports for duty at the U. July 1 with a tenured appointment in political science, just as the Middle East Center re-applies for Title VI grant funding designating it the U.'s only National Resource Center.
The center's NRC renewal was thrown into question last April when Ibrahim Karawan resigned as director in protest of the way Newman removed two professors with longtime leadership associations with the center. Newman had acted in response to an alleged collapse of collegiality and uncomfortable environment for women, contentions the professors and Karawan hotly denied.
"We had to get rid of some bad apples and we did it. It was painful," Newman told the U. trustees on Monday. "We're happy to be turning the page."
In an interview, Newman stressed his efforts to strengthen the center's ties across campus and to Utah's Middle Eastern community.
"We wanted to make it more broadly interdisciplinary. We have done a lot of reorganization and clean-up in terms of budgetary issues," Newman said. "We did a major search with representatives from across the campus community in a way that signaled my desire for the center to be involved with every aspect of the university, rather than a few units."
Baktiari has served on Maine's faculty since 1987 and currently heads the university's School of Policy and International Affairs, which he founded three years ago. The school includes 21 faculty from seven departments and programs, so Baktiari is no stranger to bringing together divergent voices and academic pursuits.
He emigrated from Iran in 1970 as a high school student, then did his undergraduate work at the University of Virginia, where he studied the ideas of Thomas Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence.
"I have always used his philosophy and ethics as a model for my education," Baktiari said. He has consulted for the Clinton State Department and often comments on Middle East issues.
"My view is that United States policy requires a lot of cultural fine tuning," he said. "Civilizational dialogue is critical to our understanding of the Middle East. I see a close relationship between democratic governance and healthy political systems."
Education »Came to the United States from Iran in 1970, completed high school in Cheshire, Conn. Attended the University of Virginia as graduate and undergraduate. Earned doctorate from Virginia's Woodrow Wilson Department of Government and Foreign Affairs.
Current position » Professor of political science, University of Maine. In 2005, he founded its School of Policy and International Affairs, which he directs.
Academic interests » Political culture of the Middle East.
Recent publications » Reform and Democracy in Iran; "Iran's Conservative Revival" in the January 2007 issue of Current History; "Globalization and Religion" in the 2008 collection Globalization in the 21st Century: How Interconnected Are We?
The U's Middle East Center
Under the leadership of Aziz Atiya, a prominent Coptic historian, the center won Title VI "National Resource Center" status in 1960 under a special Department of Education grant, making the U. a pioneer in "area studies" research and training. The center promotes public understanding of Middle Eastern history, culture, languages and politics on campus and in the larger Utah community. U. administrators consider the center not only a source of prestige, but a crucial resource in building the university's international relevance.