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University of Utah charts new course for struggling Middle East Center

Published December 20, 2011 4:58 pm

Education • Officials suspend graduate program and end joint faculty appointments.
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The University of Utah is restructuring its once-prestigious Middle East Center (MEC) rather than pulling the plug on what has become a source of campus tension and embarrassment.

College of Humanities Dean Robert Newman on Tuesday named two respected U. scholars as interim co-directors — political scientist Kirk Jowers, director of the Hinckley Institute of Politics, and historian Robert Goldberg, director of the Tanner Humanities Center. They will run the center for two years, after which a permanent leader will be found.

"We are trying to raise the profile of the center and put it on a secure financial footing then hand it over to an internationally recognized expert. The Middle East is a crucial part of the world. Teaching Arabic must continue," Goldberg said.

Simmering friction between the center's senior leadership and Newman boiled over nearly four years ago resulting in the ouster of two veteran faculty members and resignations of its director and associate director. Under a new director, the center's bid to renew its federal grant last year failed. U. administrators later fired Bahman Baktiari in a plagiarism scandal, leaving the center rudderless earlier this year and renewing tensions between the dean and the MEC faculty.

Among changes unveiled Tuesday, administrators will suspend the graduate program and do away with joint faculty appointments, meaning the scholars most identified with the 51-year-old center will return to their home departments. The goal, according to officials, is not to marginalize MEC's old guard, but to broaden its interdisciplinary reach.

The move also shifts salary obligations from the center, which exhausted its finances under Baktiari's leadership. MEC faculty have typically come from departments of political science, anthropology, languages and history.

"Faculty currently holding joint appointments will be invited to join an expanded number of affiliated faculty from across campus whose research, teaching or service interests include Middle East Studies," Newman wrote in an email. "This increased interdisciplinary emphasis has led to the success of the Asia Center and Latin American Studies Program in the College of Humanities and I expect it to elevate the stature and viability of the MEC as well."

The Asia Center last year achieved coveted status as a National Resource Center for area studies, a designation the MEC lost in the same round of grants from the U.S. Department of Education. Perhaps offering a template for the MEC's path forward, the Asia Center never entertained joint faculty appointments.

"That's smart. Joint appointments create a context where you put the area-studies center in competition with the departments for student credit-hour funding," said center director Janet Theiss, a member of the history faculty. "The program and the departments could have different ideas of what kind of hiring they want to do."

Theiss, along with Goldberg and Jowers, served on Newman's committee to chart a new course for the MEC in the wake of its latest leadership shake-up. The committee did not include any of the three remaining MEC faculty. Goldberg said that those professors will have a say on the center's operations.

"They will maintain influence and their courses will carry MEC designation," Goldberg said. "Their importance to the center is obvious. They are all friends of mine. Their opinion is required."

MEC faculty could not be reached Tuesday.

Meanwhile, the Hinckley and Tanner centers will contribute to MEC funding and carry some of the outreach load. For example, the Tanner center's annual World Leaders lecture will focus on the Middle East. Next up on April 18 is George Mitchell, the former senator who served the Obama administration as a special envoy for Middle East peace.

The Hinckley Institute has set up internships in such Arab nations as Jordan and Egypt, and has its sites set on Turkey.

bmaffly@sltrib.com —

About the Middle East Center

Once a source of prestige for the University of Utah, this center has fallen on hard times over the course of a leadership crisis going back four years. Under new interim management, a leaner center hopes to revive its lecture series and summer teacher workshops, find new sources of funding, broaden its interdisciplinary scope, hone its undergraduate program and resume accepting graduate students.




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