Harvard Seeks Mideast Specialists

For five months, Professor of Anthropology Steven C. Caton has served as the director of Harvard’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies (CMES), founded in 1954 to promote the study of the Middle East on campus. Since then he has worked with departments to recruit specialists in Middle Eastern studies and drafted several grant proposals for faculty interested in the field.

But citing holes in the University through which contemporary Middle Eastern studies has slipped, Caton says he will soon announce a plan to make Harvard a leader in the controversial field.

Harvard currently has neither a senior nor a junior professor who specializes in the political science of the region. Harvard students, unlike their peers at schools such as the University of California at Berkeley, cannot major in Middle Eastern Studies.

And Caton counts himself as one of the only tenured scholars at Harvard who specialize in the contemporary Middle East.

But he’s not pessimistic. Harvard administrators, Caton says, are quick to admit Middle Eastern studies need to be strengthened.

“The administration understands this,” he says. “I can’t tell you how important it is that people understand the need for it. Now it’s just a matter of trying to implement it.”

Last month, Caton attended a faculdinner with University President Lawrence H. Summers to discuss a topic Summers has termed “Global Islam.” Summers called the dinner “fascinating” and says he looks forward to further discussion. “I think there’s a lot we need to think about on the inter-related but clearly separate studies of contemporary Middle Eastern studies and issues relating to Islam,” he says.

Caton hopes further discussion with Summers and other top officials will lead to Harvard becoming one of the top institutions in contemporary Middle Eastern and Islamic studies.

“There seems to be a combination of world events, and Harvard sensing that it’s behind many other institutions in terms of being able to talk to the public intelligently about these events,” Caton says. “But Harvard is doing something about it, and it has the resources to do something about it.”

Within the next month Caton will unveil his own plan for bolstering Middle Eastern studies at Harvard—a plan which he says includes demands for more faculty who focus on the contemporary Middle East, and also the creation of post-doctoral fellowships for younger scholars who would have the opportunity to teach and interact with undergraduates.

This umbrella proposal will outline steps to build up Middle Eastern studies and create what Caton calls “synergy”—collaboration among the different faculties in making, and perhaps even bridging, these appointments.

Caton admits that he has some difficult barriers to overcome. He says that while Latin American studies have been a strong and constant force in academia over the last 40 years, Middle Eastern studies surge in intellectual interest for brief moments, for example, following the Arab oil embargo of 1973, but then go forgotten.

Now, the war on terror and the intense Israeli-Palestinian conflict have revitalized Middle Eastern studies, leaving many department chairs scrambling to find junior and senior professors to fill the gaps of a once-ignored field of study.


Caton says his proposal is almost finished. A few more conversations with “major players,” and Caton will send it off to top University policy makers and Summers.

Historically, CMES is the coordinating body for the representation of Middle Eastern studies on campus. Caton and other administrators at CMES recommend scholars to department chairs in order to fill gaps within the various departments.

Right now, Caton says, there are a lot of gaps to fill. He says some fields, most notably sociology and economics, aren’t very compatible with Middle Eastern studies since their approaches are rooted in western models.

Nur Yalman, professor of Middle Eastern Studies in the Department of Anthropology, says that professors in “pseudo-scientific” fields such as political science and economics, prefer not to address Middle Eastern issues—a fact that makes it difficult to generate serious academic interest in the area.

“They like to think that they don’t have to deal with messy things like problems of regional conflict, but regional conflicts have a way of coming back to bite them,” Yalman says. “They prefer to have abstract ideas, but that doesn’t get us too far.”

But Caton has high hopes for reaching across disciplines.

He says his proposal will stress the need for a modern historian, a political scientist, a scholar of contemporary Islam (in the Middle East and elsewhere in the world), an economist, a literary scholar, a public health specialist and an Islamic finance scholar.

The problem, he says, is where to put the new hires. For example, where do you place an expert of North African literature written in French? The French department, comparative literature, and African and African-American Studies all seem possible, he says.

“Finding homes for these people not only makes structural sense within

Harvard, but also makes intellectual sense for them,” he says. “You don’t want them to feel isolated and abandoned. It’s a real issue.”

One possible idea, Caton says, is to create a position similar to that of the University Professor, without the prestige, which would structurally allow a professor to teach in multiple departments, depending on their interests and needs.

“There has to be a lot of creative thinking done to solve this problem, and all I can say is that people are trying to do it,” Caton says.


According to Caton, the biggest gap in Middle Eastern studies, and the one that has incited the most consternation among undergraduates, is the lack of a political scientist in the government department. It has been over a decade since a tenured faculty member has held a position in the department and a year since the junior faculty slot was left vacant.

While declining to comment on whose program is better, Emily Gottreich, vice chair of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at UC Berkeley, points out that Berkeley has a tenured political scientist, Kiren Chaudhry, who like Gottreich herself was trained at Harvard.

Last year, CMES recommended several senior candidates to the government department to fill the void. But Caton says he does not know what happened after that. The search became the government department’s responsibility, and Caton was not asked to participate.

In the end, the search committee failed to select a senior scholar of Middle East politics who was available and that they were willing to recommend to the government department, Nancy L. Rosenblum, the newly appointed department chair, confirms.

Rosenblum rejects the charge that the government department was unprepared for the growing interest in the Middle East. She says the lack of a Middle Eastern political scientist is due to the “constant reshuffling” of faculty in all areas of comparative politics and is not the result of a long-term oversight.

“There’s this sort of half-life to the work of excellent scholars who go on to produce other scholars,” she says. “The same thing happens in reverse. People retire or resign and fields lie fallow...I expect that 10 years down the line, we’ll see a lot of excellent Middle East scholars.”

Rosenblum says a Middle Eastern political scientist is now a “top regional hiring priority,” followed by an additional professor of African politics.

Rosenblum says the senior search has currently been abandoned but that the department has commissioned a hiring search for a Middle Eastern specialist at the junior level, and the search is well underway. Five candidates are being considered and the first job talk will take place in the next several weeks.

She adds that it is one of the department’s duties to provide “at least the minimum” of the kinds of courses undergraduates expect in the field of Middle Eastern politics, such as a course on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Meyer Professor of Middle East History E. Roger Owen says the trouble the government department now faces used to be true of the history department. “It used to be that very few American history departments had anyone in modern Middle East history. That, at least, has gotten better,” he says.

Owen contends that the history department is one field Caton doesn’t have to worry about, and could act as an example for other departments who wish to follow suit.

Typically, Owen says, each regional area is allotted two professorships in the history department, but the Middle East has ended up with four. “We couldn’t possibly ask for more,” says Owen, who, along with Afsaneh Najmabadi, professor of history and women’s studies, is an expert on modern Middle East history.


At the end of the year, Yalman, the only professor who studies the Northern parts of the region, will retire. And Caton has his doubts that he will be replaced. Since Yalman’s chair is rotating, University Hall decides which department should get it next.

Yalman has been teaching at Harvard since 1972 and he says that since then the field of Middle Eastern studies has never gotten a great deal of support. Yet Yalman remains confident in the future of Middle Eastern studies at Harvard, citing the brilliance of the University’s graduate students. “I have never had difficulty in finding superbly prepared teaching fellows for my courses,” he says.

Yalman agrees with Caton that scholars in the areas of culture and literature and arts, as well as in current affairs, finance and the economy, are absolutely necessary additions to the faculty.

Yalman hopes Middle Eastern studies will eventually follow the format which has worked well for the Far East region. Harvard’s East Asian Studies program, he says, has excellent institutes which focus on each critical country, from Japan to China to Korea. He says a similar form of specialization that is integrated within the various disciplines would work well for the study of the Middle East and also the greater Islamic world.

“Since the country is obviously involved with this part of the world in a fundamental way,” Yalman says, “it is important to have new positions in the critical departments.”