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A prestigious federal grant that has sustained the University of Utah's Middle East Center for 50 years may be in jeopardy, triggering an "urgent request" to preserve the funding from the state's congressional delegation to the U.S. Department of Education.
The center has been rebuilding since an April 2008 imbroglio when its director, political scientist Ibrahim Karawan, resigned in protest over the humanities dean's unilateral decision to remove two senior scholars. The program has since acquired new leadership, re-instated one of the scholars and worked to shore up its reputation. But as its four-year funding cycle closes next week, the center has yet to be informed in writing whether it will retain its designation as a "national resource center" (NRC) in Middle Eastern studies, according to new director Bahman Baktiari.
DOE spokesman Jane Glickman, however, told the Tribune Tuesday that the U. center has been turned down for the grant, awarded competitively under Title VI of the Higher Education Act.
Still, Baktiari remains optimistic. "Renewals take longer. The delay is not an issue for me," said the Iranian-born political scientist, who came to the U. last year from the University of Maine to help restore the MEC in the wake of Karawan's tumultuous departure.
Over the past four years, the MEC has received $1.8 million, half going to the center and half to scholarships that support 18 fellows. Baktiari is seeking $2.4 million for the next four-year cycle, which begins Aug. 15.
"It was the most inclusive grant we've submitted in the history of the program," he said. "We're pushing the center in a new direction. We have a strong proposal. It doesn't make sense if it's not renewed," he said.
Some 300 centers vie for 125 grants that accord the coveted NRC designation for regions such as Latin America, Asia and Europe. Panels of independent experts review the grant applications and recommend which are worthy of federal support for their ability to promote understanding of that area's history, languages, cultures and politics.
According to Glickman, 28 schools applied for Middle East grants, but the U.'s scores were too low to make the cut of 19. The U.'s Asia Center did win a fresh Title VI grant of $4.5 million, which it will share with Brigham Young University. DOE also awarded grants to BYU's Europe center and Middle Eastern languages program.
In a press release, U. humanities dean Robert Newman lauded the Asia Center grant for its "ambitious agenda that will significantly enhance our students' education as global citizens." But the potential loss of the Middle East grant would be a painful setback. The university has taken great pride in the MEC, among the nation's oldest, largest and most established NRCs, and the only one in eight contiguous western states. It has 16 tenured and tenure-track faculty serving 300 undergraduate majors, according to Baktiari.
Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch called the grant renewal "absolutely essential" in a plea to federal officials.
"For the past 50 years, the Middle East Center has played an integral role in nurturing the spirit of collaboration, diversity, dialogue, and moderation in the United States. It has been a true National Resource Center for our country, and it is an important educational asset in the United States, the Intermountain Region, and the State of Utah," Hatch wrote Friday in letter to Education Secretary Arne Duncan. The letter, signed by all five members of Utah's delegation, ticks off the center's accomplishments and contributions.
They include providing "critical national security language training"; a Middle East library with 200,000 volumes; and connecting with the region's growing Muslim community, now numbering 25,000.
"We stepped in because [the grant] had not been awarded yet and the senator [Hatch] wants to do everything he can to support the Middle East Center," said Hatch spokeswoman Heather Barney. said. "When people come to us with good proposals the senator always does what he can to support Utah institutions. I'm sure other centers have their senators putting in a good word, too."