As recent world events have piqued a sudden interest in the Middle East, American policymakers are scrambling for advice in an embarrassingly barren field of knowledge. And what little scholarship exists - certainly more now than before Sept. 11, 2001 - has been burdened by political partisanship.
The addition of the Crown Center for Middle East Studies, with its $25 million endowment from the Crown family of Chicago, provides the opportunity to face this need in a new and aggressive way.
And if a recent Boston Globe article is any indication, University President Jehuda Reinharz has been appropriately tenacious in heralding the new Crown Center for Middle Eastern Studies, which opened Monday.
The president has billed the center as a response not only to widespread bias in the field of Middle East studies but also to widespread mediocrity.
"My problem is not the anti-Zionism or even that many of them are anti-American, but that they are third-rate," Mr. Reinharz told the Jerusalem Post, referring to university Middle East studies departments.
"The quality of the people [in Middle East departments] is unlike any of the qualitiesm we expect in any other field."
The statements are bold and not likely to create friends for the center or its new director, Shai Feldman, who was previously the director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University.
But in drawing the ire of many of his colleagues at other schools, Mr. Reinharz, who has served as a professor and chair of the Department of Near Eastern and Judaic Studies here, said something valuable that deserves more attention.
Last week, an ad hoc faculty committee at Columbia University released an unsettling report responding to the film Columbia Unbecoming, which alleges widespread partisanship and anti-Semitism within the ranks of professors at that school's department of Middle Eastern and Asian Languages and Cultures.
The release of the movie, which was created by the Israel advocacy group, The David Project, prompted an academic controversy of proportions never before seen at Columbia, in spite of the school's reputation for departmental meltdowns.
The report found that incidents of alleged anti-Semitism were baseless, a sure relief for students and academics alike. But this good news was coupled with the revelation that some of the film's most unsettling accusations were probably true.
In a larger sense, though, the committee which was restricted from delving into issues of academic bias left most of the concerns of students unaddressed.
Episodes reported in the film and elsewhere, and left unverified by the faculty committee, allege that some professors in Columbia's Middle East studies department tended toward towing an ideological line that left some students' opinions alienated.
For Mr. Reinharz, who served as a professor in the department of Near Eastern Judaic Studies here, such situations reveal not bias but shoddy scholarship.
It would be difficult to imagine an egregious breach of pedagogical conduct in a truly great academic environment, and it's a safe bet that a serious, sober and scholarly environment will inculcate students and professors with similar attributes.
The bottom line is that universities need to do more in the pressing area of Middle East studies and the Crown Center seems to possess both the capital and the concepts to build new foundations in this field.
The panel discussions which took place Monday and continue today already illustrate the energy put toward accomplishing this goal.
The scholars who have come to Brandeis for the inauguration of the Crown Center not only represent a healthy range of ideas but an enthusiasm for the ambitions upon which the center was founded.
We have the highest hopes that the Crown Center will continue in this tradition and take a leading role in surmounting what maybe the greatest challenge for American academia in the near future.