29 February 2016
Dear President Robinson,
We, the undersigned, Ph.D. students at the Graduate Center, CUNY, affiliated with the Middle East and Middle Eastern American Center (MEMEAC), are writing to express our grave concern regarding the decision to replace the Center’s Associate Director, Dr. Anny Bakalian, with a part-time college assistant following her retirement in summer 2016.
There are over 55 “MEMEAC Ph.D. students” at the Graduate Center in at least 13 programs, including Anthropology, Comparative Literature, English, Ethnomusicology, History, Political Science, and Sociology. Our dissertations focus on the Middle East and North Africa and their diasporas; consequently, MEMEAC functions as our area studies home. More importantly, MEMEAC has filled a number of gaps in our disciplinary programs. For example, the shortage of professors in each program specializing in the Middle East makes many MEMEAC Ph.D. students feel underrepresented in their departments and at a disadvantage in comparison to their peers working on other area studies. Our departments often do not provide the resources and networks – ranging from language instruction and faculty mentorship to opportunities to meet renowned scholars and access to grants – specific to the study of the Middle East and necessary for a rigorous and immersive intellectual experience. MEMEAC has therefore served to supplement our disciplinary programs. In the past decade, several doctoral programs have enticed strong prospective students who work on the Middle East to choose the Graduate Center by selling MEMEAC as an added value.
MEMEAC’s Associate Director has been the catalyst in building an academic Middle Eastern Studies community within the Graduate Center. The Center offers graduate students advisors and mentors, a connection with students and faculty specializing in the Middle East across disciplines, professional development opportunities, research assistantships, student conferences, workshops, and relationships with other Middle East institutes and centers at nearby universities. In light of the increasingly competitive job market, it is imperative that doctoral students on the job market demonstrate the kind of interdisciplinary knowledge fostered by such a program. Further, Graduate Center alumni specializing in Middle Eastern Studies maintain ties with the Center and are invited to speak. Active alumni are invaluable for current MEMEAC Ph.D. students as models and mentors, and they provide important information about job openings and invitations to present at panels at the Middle Eastern Studies Association and other conferences. It should thus be evident that the many responsibilities and functions of the Associate Director cannot be fulfilled by a part-time college assistant.
With prominent scholars such as Talal Asad, Ervand Abrahamian, Stephen Blum, Marvin Carlson and Vincent Crapanzano having recently retired or retiring, the Graduate Center is left weakened, less attractive in disciplinary programs, and even more impoverished in Middle Eastern Studies. Replacing the Associate Director with a college assistant working 20 hours per week will diminish a thriving center that serves several stakeholders in the university. While we are aware of the gravity of the fiscal crisis, we firmly believe that terminating the position of MEMEAC Associate Director is shortsighted and will in the long term be harmful to the interests of the Graduate Center and its current and future doctoral students working on the Middle East.
To date, the letter has more than 50 signatories.