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Stanford slow to build offerings in Middle Eastern studies

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Years after American interest in the Middle East began to experience a dramatic resurgence with the U.S. invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, Stanford is still racing to create a Middle Eastern studies program comparable to those of its peer institutions.

The University does not offer a degree-granting program in Middle Eastern studies. Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and UC-Berkeley all do.

“About two years ago we had an external review–a team from Princeton, Indiana and Chicago–come in and lay out a road map for developing our program in this area,” said Richard Saller, dean of the School of Humanities and Sciences.

Two major improvements were the creation of the Abbasi Program in Islamic Studies and the Hamid and Christina Moghadam Program in Iranian Studies in 2005 and 2007, respectively. The University also recently launched a certificate program in Iranian studies and is in the process of hiring a second Middle East historian. Challenges have precluded further expansion, however.

“The truth is we have not added the faculty as quickly as we’d hoped because the recession really put a break on fundraising, and we need to raise additional funds in order to fund additional faculty positions,” Saller said.

In order to “put a strong foundation” under a degree-granting Middle Eastern studies program, the University would require an eight-figure gift, Saller added.

This race to catch up with the programs offered by peer institutions raises the question: why did Stanford not develop its Middle Eastern studies program when others did so?

“I think several decades ago, Stanford decided to concentrate on the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe and leave the Middle East to other major universities,” said Abbas Milani, director of the Program in Iranian Studies. “For a while, they seemed to have made the right choice. That was where it was happening. With the fall of the Soviet Union, the tectonic plates shifted, and Stanford decided to play catch-up.”

Despite Stanford’s lack of a centralized, degree-granting program, it does offer courses, particularly in contemporary Middle-Eastern politics, that are unique.

“We have multiple people teaching classes on modern Iran…and also people who are willing to teach classes on the Arab-Israeli conflict,” said political science professor Lisa Blaydes. “Professors in Middle Eastern politics at other institutions are not willing to really deal with those issues head-on, so in many ways we offer more breadth than some of our peer institutions.”

“Stanford may not ever get to the point where we have as large a collection of people working on the Middle East from a historical perspective,” Blaydes added, “but we do seem to offer the types of courses that students would have the greatest affinity for: contemporary issues with high relevance.”

Stanford also encourages this interest in contemporary Middle Eastern issues with the multitude of guests it draws to the campus.

“In terms of events, in terms of the number of lectures and conferences and screenings, I think I can say right now I know of no other place, no other university, that is as active in these areas,” Milani said.

Questions have also been raised as to whether Stanford offers adequate programs in Middle Eastern languages. The university recently added a semi-permanent Turkish instructor and offers programs in Persian and Arabic as well.

“For many faculty, the primary frustration has to do with the language instruction,” said history professor Robert Crews. “Historically, Persian and Turkish have been taught on a kind of ad hoc basis…language instruction at Stanford is not on par with language instruction at other peer institutions.”

Any potential degree-granting program in Middle Eastern studies would probably be an interdepartmental effort between history, anthropology, religious studies and political science, said religious studies professor Shahzad Bashir. The involvement of other departments–for example, art history, sociology or economics–would depend on where the University chooses to hire additional faculty.

As Stanford continues to expand its offerings in Middle Eastern studies, the strategy to build a better program seems clear: hire more faculty.

“It’s relatively straightforward,” Bashir said. “At the end of the day, courses are dependent on who’s hired, and the more permanent positions we have, there are more courses, more synergies, more possibilities of people doing projects of different types.”