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Faced with a crippling financial shortfall, the University of Utah's Middle East Center has discontinued its long-standing public outreach programs. The move comes as the 50-year-old interdisciplinary center struggles to right itself after the loss of a crucial grant and even as its outreach is more relevant than ever.

"Never has there been a time in U.S. history when teaching about the many issues of the Middle East has been more critical. Understanding the roots of the revolutionary movement sweeping North Africa, the protests in Bahrain, Yemen and Syria, and the broad spectrum of Islamic movements is pivotal to understanding today's world," outreach director Cynthia Douglass wrote in a farewell email to colleagues Friday.

The center's director, Bahman Baktiari, was placed on paid leave in February when concerns were raised about the originality of some of his published work, as well as about his fiscal management of the center, which he took over in July 2009 in the wake of an earlier leadership crisis.

An audit had found that Baktiari was spending money faster than the center was bringing in, officials said. In the meantime, the center failed to win renewal of the prestigious federal Title VI grant that had supported it for most of its history.

Outreach is a core aspect of the center's mission and officials are examining every option to resuscitate it.

"It's more suspended than shut down," said Heidi Camp, the College of Humanities' assistant dean for advancement and research. "They had to make some hard calls. The faculty decided to come down on the side of students."

By laying off Douglass, the center was able to preserve funding for three graduate students.

"Outreach was dependent on the Title VI grant. There was no way to sustain it without cannibalizing other things," Camp said. "We are going to try to re-imagine the program so it can be sustained regardless of the grant so this won't happen again."

The center's outreach efforts included film and lecture series, teacher workshops, cultural events and several other public programs held throughout the year.