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.

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