The languages, philosophy and speech communication department has announced a tenure-track position in Arabic, with plans to offer Arabic language and culture courses beginning fall 2010. Maria Cordero, associate professor of Spanish and chair of the Arabic search committee, said the position will initiate an Arabic program that includes cross-discipline classes in Middle East studies open to students in diverse majors, such as political science, economics, religious studies and history.
The announcement comes just as students in the political science department formed a Middle East Club last week and circulated a petition asking the College of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences (HASS) to add more classes in Middle East studies. Rob Jepson, political science sophomore, said he will present the petition to HASS Dean Yolanda Flores Niemann and Provost Ray Coward next week. Jepson said initial interest in the student-led push has been extremely positive, with 55 students signing up for the Middle East Club in its first week and 420 students signing their name to voice interest in taking a Middle East studies class if it were offered.
"Political science professors have pushed for this before, but what's never happened is a student push," Jepson said.
Jeannie Johnson, political science instructor who advises students interested in finding government jobs in Middle Eastern affairs, said an Arabic-studies program is imperative for USU students who want government jobs in Middle Eastern affairs. The Arabic search committee's job announcement is a welcomed first step in rebuilding a Middle East emphasis across departments, she said.
"Most all of (America's) foreign policy is directed toward the Middle East. We ought to have a Middle East expert," Johnson said. "Those government recruiters and any agencies who work abroad, when they come to our campus they are always shocked that we have such a lack of Middle East expertise. It is a struggle for them to hire our students ... to justify it, when our students have, in some cases, zero background on the Middle East and no language training that would be even remotely relevant."
Jepson, who has an interest in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and wants to work as a government analyst, said he's amazed recruiters from agencies such as the CIA even take the time to visit USU.
"We're really a gracious stop on the line between BYU and University of Utah," Jepson said.
Student interest in the Middle East has been strong all semester. Davis Anderson, a political science master's student, said he signed 60 students into his Middle East politics and government class this semester, five over the 55-student cap. The interest was all the more significant because the class was added late and wasn't advertised in the course catalog, he said.
Both the University of Utah and BYU have strong Middle Eastern studies and Arabic language departments, and USU loses potential students to their programs, Johnson said. Building a good Middle East studies program will take time, she said, but the Arabic-language professor is the first step. The next logical step, she said, would be to hire a political science or economics professor with Middle East expertise and language skills. Finally, a third professor with expertise in Middle East history and religion would form the basis of a solid Middle East studies program, she said.
For now, students who want to learn more about Middle East issues can attend the USU Middle East Club. One of the first activities planned for club members is an Arabic language basics class. Safa Khouffi, senior international studies major who was born in Jerusalem, said she will teach the alphabet and easy Arabic vocabulary. The Middle East Club meets Tuesdays at 4:30 p.m. in Old Main, Room 121. For more information, e-mail Rob Jepson at firstname.lastname@example.org.