Over the summer, the University received a start-up grant of around $100,000 from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to explore establishing a Middle Eastern studies program.
The money from the grant will allow the University to bring experts to campus that will lecture on topics concerning the Middle East. Next fall, the University hopes to appoint a post-doctoral fellow that will teach within a discipline connected to the Middle East, as well as begin a film series with a focus on the Middle East.
Professor of History Bruce Masters, a member of the newly formed Committee on Middle Eastern Studies and who currently teaches a history course entitled “The Middle East in the 20th Century,” emphasized that the program would inherently link in-class subject matter with real world events.
“It’s an important thing for Wesleyan students to be aware of the wider world…look at the Middle East, it’s in the news all the time,” Masters said.
Lev Plaves ’10 thought about designing his own major in Middle Eastern studies but realized that the University does not offer enough classes with a focus on the region.
“I’d love to major in Middle Eastern studies,” Plaves said. “I’ve definitely been disappointed in the selection of classes regarding the Middle East… it’s a bummer for me that it’s coming this late, but better late than never.”
Masters added that the Committee on Middle Easter Studies hopes to add student member to its ranks soon.
The grant can be seen as another step within the University’s continuing exploration of opportunities for Middle Eastern studies. Even before the University received the Mellon Grant, Academic Affairs decided to create four new faculty positions, including a government professor who will focus on the Middle East.
Next fall, the University will submit a report to show how the Mellon money was spent. If satisfied, the foundation will provide the University with more funding.
“If they think we’ve made a serious attempt, they give us more money,” Masters said. “Generally speakin— don’t want to jinx i—ut they give the follow-up.”
In this second phase, the Mellon Foundation would provide funding for the University to hire faculty. At that point, the University would commit to raising its own money to support the program. Masters hopes that by 2010 or 2011 a course cluster and certificate program will be established in Middle Eastern studies, and eventually a major program similar to the East Asian Studies Program.
Plaves applauds this effort by the University to respond to students’ academic wants.
“I think it’s great,” Plaves said. “There’s a clear interest among students.”
Many peer institutions are just starting programs of their own. Masters reports that Wellesley College recently started a program in Middle Eastern studies. A year ago Williams College added two Arabic professors to their faculty. Masters hopes that the Mellon money could fund a permanent professor of Arabic language at the University.
“We were kind of a pioneer in liberal arts schools when we started the East Asian Studies Program…but we’ve fallen behind on the Middle East,” Masters said. “We haven’t done much.”
These plans reflects the larger goals expressed within President Michael Roth’s internationalization initiative, one of seven large-scale goals Roth has set for the coming years. However, Roth emphasized that there are still many areas within this specific initiative that he hopes to expand upon.
“The faculty work group on internationalization made six significant recommendations, from increasing the number of international students to increasing the number of research and internship possibilities, to creating a Center for Cross-Cultural and Global Engagement and supporting advanced course work in foreign languages,” Roth wrote in an e-mail. “We will be meeting with the group to discuss priorities within their recommendations and to explore some of the infrastructure issues they have raised.”
Masters, however, remains cautiously optimistic about the future of Middle Eastern studies at the University.
“We’re encouraged this will all go forward and we will have Middle Eastern studies at Wesleyan,” Masters said. “I just hope it happens before I retire.”