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Harvard Slow to Revamp Middle Eastern Studies

While prominent in classical areas, University in need of specialists on modern topics

By Ella A. Hoffman, Crimson Staff Writer

After Sept. 11, the public turned towards America’s top colleges and universities to answer a firestorm of questions about the Middle East.

But what they found at Harvard was a department more experienced in classical Arabic than in studying terrorism.

“Sept. 11 thrust Middle Eastern Studies into the center of things, and we’ve never been there before,” says William E. Granara, director of undergraduate studies in the department of Near Eastern languages and civilizations (NELC).

Although uncomfortably bright for some in this small area of study, the recent spotlight offers an opportunity—and a need—to examine and reevaluate Middle Eastern studies.

Scholars in the field say it must be reoriented—from its current focus on classical studies to one more centered around the modern Middle East.

Harvard, with its myriad resources and long tradition of study in the field, is well positioned to pioneer this transition, professors say.

But despite the opportunity offered by the current political and academic climate, Harvard is doing relatively less than its peers to recruit top-notch Middle Eastern scholars.

While Princeton has articulated its desire to modernize its program and Columbia and New York University (NYU) have beefed up their faculties with numerous recent hires, Harvard has taken few concrete steps to follow suit.

“We aren’t bad, but we are not all that we could be,” Granara says about Middle Eastern studies at Harvard.

Not Ready To Lead

Harvard and Princeton enter the race to become the leading institution in Middle Eastern studies with a clear advantage, Granara says, citing Harvard’s extensive resources, including its Middle Eastern library, which he says is one of the best in the world.

Harvard also boasts one of the best programs for the study of Middle Eastern languages, NELC. The University is known to have the best Hebrew bible program in the world, according to Granara.

Also, the Center for Middle Eastern Studies (CMES) at Harvard, established in 1954, brings together twenty faculty and 100 graduate students to study Middle East-related fields.

“Harvard has the potential to be number one or at least tied with Princeton in overall Middle Eastern studies,” says Eva Bellin ’80, associate professor of government at Harvard.

Unfortunately, Harvard lacks the faculty to take the lead.

The University has a tradition of excellence in classical studies—but the current demand from outside the academy is for scholarship on the modern Middle East.

Harvard boasts fewer expert social scientists focusing on the Middle East than many other schools, Bellin says.

Harvard does not have a single tenured Middle East political scientist, according to Bellin.

A senior position in Middle East politics has been left vacant since the mid-1980s.

And perhaps most shocking is the absence of any senior scholar studying modern Islam at Harvard.

This hole is weakening Harvard’s ability to comprehensively study the region, professors say.

“We have to expand the boundaries of what we call Middle Eastern studies and make some changes, and those changes need to be reflected in hiring and now’s the time to do it,” he adds.

But more and more students are turning toward the modern Middle Eastern world, and the University is not able to satisfy their interest, Granara says.

The importance of a senior person is undisputed at Harvard, Granara says.

“Because of the emphasis at Harvard, it is necessary to have a senior professor in a field to give muscle to a discipline—you need a senior person,” he says.

But rather than designating the “heir apparent” in the field through a decisive senior hire, Harvard has instead had more of a “revolving door.”

A new batch of assistant or associate professors is ushered in every few years and forced to depart when those professors are not granted tenure, says Bellin. She herself will leave Harvard at the end of this year for a new position at Hunter College.

The Competition

Harvard is not alone in acknowledging inadequacies in Middle Eastern studies, but other schools are taking bolder steps to correct their shortcomings.

Princeton, which has historically been weak in Middle Eastern languages—though very strong in history—is evaluating their program, according to Andras P. Hamori, the chair of the school’s department of Near Eastern Studies.

“We realized that we needed to rebalance the department so that the modern side would begin to be as thorough and as comprehensive as the premodern side,” Hamori says.

The department is about to recommend the appointment of an assistant professor in Middle Eastern politics, he says.

“But what we try and say and what the dean of the faculty says we have resources for are often very different things,” Hamori notes.

Columbia and NYU have also stepped up to the challenge. The schools have both instigated hiring frenzies that have revitalized their respective programs.

“These hires are not a response to recent news events, but part of a more long term strategy at NYU that sees its Middle Eastern Studies program as a strong component of its broader academic mission,” says Shiva Balaghi, the associate director of NYU’s Hagop Kevorkian Center for Middle Eastern Studies. “Indeed, in the past decade, NYU’s department has developed as one of the strongest departments within the university.”

Another Bump in the Road

One possible explanation for the deficiencies within the field of Middle Eastern scholarship is the changing nature of area studies.

Since the 1980s, many area studies programs have been reappropriated by more traditional departments like history and economics.

“Although Middle Eastern studies survives as a discipline, it is being reined in by academic departments,” Granara says. “Nowadays, to study Middle Eastern history, you have to study historical theory through the history department. In the 1960s you went into a university to become a Middle Eastern scholar, not a historian.”

Due to this methodological trend, area studies are losing out to the larger disciplines, professors worry.

Government and economics, are particularly disinclined toward studies defined by geographical or cultural regions, Bellin says. They prefer theory.

But some feel that, in the long run, Middle Eastern studies may benefit from being absorbed back into well established departments.

Gulru Necipoglu, the Aga Khan professor of Islamic art, says there is an advantage to the reclaiming of area studies by departments—“it does not dilute or water down the seriousness of specialist study,” she says.

“Area studies has the advantage of having everyone under the same building, like at Princeton; however scholars tend not to know what is going on in other departments and are unable to relate their study to larger issues,” Necipoglu says.

The practical institutional reactions to this trend away from limited regional studies have been an emphasis on centers and institutes—such as CMES—separate from mainstream undergraduate curricula.

“The center gives an umbrella net and integrates special disciplines within a global framework in addition to opening up the field to non-specialists,” Necipoglu says.

Princeton is considering establishing an institute for international studies, which would, “bring together people from various departments resulting in a better interchange between area studies and political science,” Hamori says.

In light of these methodological differences and financial limitations, such as the “soft hiring freeze” recently instituted by Dean of the Faculty William C. Kirby, Harvard will have its hands full trying to remain competitive in the field of Middle Eastern studies.

But professors at Harvard say this is challenge the University must meet.

“A place like Harvard is in an enviable position to watch what is going on in the world and help Americans to understand it,” Granara says. “However, to delve into a subject, we have to understand all aspects of it—you have to work in history, political science, cultural studies. We need to revamp.”

—Staff writer Ella A. Hoffman can be reached at ehoffman@fas.harvard.edu.

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