U. administrators say they are committed to the center's survival and growth, even in the face of evaporating budgets and competing needs.
U. humanities dean Robert Newman was sued by Hebrew professor Harris Lenowitz, after alleging last year that he and another veteran scholar from the center were contributing to a hostile environment for female faculty.
Those allegations were denied at the time by the center's then executive director, Ibrahim Karawan, and by Lenowitz, and historian Peter Sluglett, the other ousted professor, who argued the women left for good posts at prestigious schools. The professors continue to serve their home departments.
"Newman never gave the two professors any concrete description of what it was they had supposedly done, and never gave them any chance to respond to his accusations before he removed them from the Middle East Center," said Lenowitz' lawyer, Kathy Wyer, in a statement. "Even after the center director resigned in protest and five former center faculty, all women, told Newman he was wrong, he has persisted in perpetuating this falsehood."
Newman could not be reached for comment Wednesday.
Lenowitz' suit was filed a week after Newman was named a finalist for the president's post at the University of Rhode Island. An English scholar, he has led the College of Humanities since 2001. Under his leadership, it launched new interdisciplinary initiatives, such as international studies, environmental humanities and the Confucius Institute.
But Lenowitz contends Newman is not minding the Middle East Center by failing to replace departing scholars with tenure-track appointments. Since 1999, the center's faculty ranks have dropped from 24 to 12, according to the lawsuit. Most of the erosion has occurred in Turkish, Arabic and Persian languages, where faculty ranks slipped from nine to two.
The U. is now renewing the federal Title VI grant that funnels about $500,000 to the center annually.
"When I came here, this was a really promising organization. I had no notion that the Middle East Center would have itself stripped of excellent teaching faculty in these critical languages. Newman has put us in a perilous position in terms of renewing the grant," said Lenowitz, who arrived in 1972 to study and teach Hebrew at the center.
The center is actually broadening its focus to include social work and other fields, said David Pershing, the U.'s senior vice president for academic affairs. The loss of Middle Eastern language faculty is a concern, but administrators must balance the center with growing student demand for other languages, such as Spanish and Portuguese.
"We are trying to protect the center because it's important to the university's international focus," Pershing said. "I don't agree that the faculty have left over the recent past. We are building the center up."