9/11 increases Middle Eastern studies strength and enrollment

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Photo Credit: Colin Zelinski | Daily Texan Staff

More than a decade after the world-changing 9/11 attacks, the UT community continues to see the devastation of that day seriously affect its campus, down to the classes the University offers.

With the horror and destruction of 9/11 also came analyses by Americans of how to combat a new threat. Questions were asked, studies conducted and conclusions drawn. Thomas Palaima, classics professor and Middle Eastern studies expert, said it was discovered that the U.S. government, a government that spends more money on military defense than any other nation in the world, was ill-equipped to deal with conflicts in the Middle East.

“One of the problems with 9/11 was that one found out that we did not even have, even in the specialized areas of the government and the military, the number of experts in Middle Eastern culture and languages that we should,” Palaima said.

He said in response to the lack of qualified military personnel, UT and many other universities across the country soon began to adjust their curricula, increasing the size and strength of their Middle Eastern studies programs. He said the increased focus on the Middle East did not spill over to interest in other cultural studies programs.

“It would be good if we applied the same concern across the board in other areas, and I just don’t see that,” Palaima said.

Palaima said he believes the focus on Middle Eastern studies has actually decreased the overall size of ethnic studies programs nationwide, as total resources have shifted and ultimately decreased. Should the U.S. come into conflict with certain other parts of the world, Palaima said the U.S. could end up in a situation similar to that after 9/11, with a lack of expert personnel and a subsequent unbalanced shift in academics.

Kristen Brustad, department chair of Middle Eastern studies and associate professor of Arabic, said she has seen growth in her department because of 9/11.

“The number of Arabic majors went up fairly dramatically over these last ten years,” she said. “We now have the largest graduate program in the country in terms of Arabic studies. It used to be only the large universities had an Arabic program, but now, it is small colleges and community colleges as well, and now a number of our graduates are teaching in those schools.”

According to statistics from UT’s office of institutional research, the number of students enrolled in the Middle Eastern studies department at UT increased by 97.67 percent, when comparing 2002 fall enrollment with fall enrollment from 2011. That included a 52 percent increase in the number of undergraduates, bringing the number of students from 25 to 38. There was an 80 percent increase in the number of students pursuing a master’s degree, from 10 to 18. And there was a 262.5 percent increase in the number of Ph.D. candidates, from 8 to 29.

The same statistics for the departments of Slavic and Eurasian studies and Spanish and Portuguese show a 37.04 percent decline, from 27 to 17, and a 40 percent decline, from 440 to 264, in total Spanish and Portuguese enrollment respectively.

Palaima said a replicate situation took place in the U.S. following the Cold War, where Russian studies were escalated as U.S.-Soviet conflict grew.

“It is a very similar situation,” Palaima said.

Brustad said, luckily, one thing that has not seemed to change at UT is the tolerant atmosphere for Middle Eastern students.

“Recently, I would say not at UT, but at the climate at large, I hear a lot more negative rhetoric in the public discourse at large,” Brustad said. “Former students of mine from before I came to UT, where I taught before, who now work for the government have even been attacked because they are Muslim or Arabic.”

Mai Khattab, a member of UT’s Arab student association, said she has seen that acceptance while at UT for the last two years.

“For us, as Arabs here at UT, we are treated just like any other group,” Khattab said. “We have never had anyone be offensive and treat us badly or anything.”