Center for Middle Eastern Studies

“Memories of a Promise: Short Stories by Middle Eastern Women” intended to explore Middle Eastern women’s lives. The book was going to be dedicated to the late Dr. Elizabeth “BJ” Warnock Fernea, who was a professor of literature and Middle Eastern studies at UT. It promised to dispel abounding stereotypes by examining women’s experiences in the region.

Two Israeli writers were to be featured in the book, along with twenty-nine Arab writers.

Acting in accordance with the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel, which is a cultural and academic boycott in favor of a free Palestine, thirteen of the twenty-nine writers withdrew their submissions after learning two Israeli writers’ work would be included in the book. The Center for Middle Eastern Studies consequently cancelled the publication of the book rather than publishing an incomplete volume. There are no plans to resurrect the project or honor Dr. Fernea.

When the conflict of interest first became known there were initial propositions for compromise. Many in favor of the Israeli writers’ inclusion suggested replacing the withdrawn submissions with new submissions from other writers.

The Center chose instead to cancel the publication of the book. By refusing to compromise with either the protesters or the Israeli writers, the University was clear in its position as a partisan-free institution intent on preserving academic integrity and free speech.

Academic boycotts have a controversial history. In 1980, the United Nations passed a resolution urging cultural and academic centers to break ties with South Africa in protest of apartheid. Opposition to that UN boycott was fierce, and many noted that a boycott against the academic institutions of South Africa was counterproductive because South African universities were the origin of much anti-apartheid dialogue. For the most part, universities have historically stood as havens for uncensored political dialogue.

Fast forward to the present day. The Center for Middle Eastern Studies refused to condone the academic boycott against “Memory of a Promise.” By doing so, the university would have compromised its role as a citadel of free speech. “Academic boycotts are not acceptable,” says Dr. Kamran Aghaie, director of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies. “When we start playing these political games, we give up academic integrity … We get this [protest] all the time, angry, irate voices, and we just say ‘no.’ These are the academic standards.”

By refusing to remove the Israeli writers from the book or attempting to compromise with the Arab writers, the Center effectively allowed the book to fold. In doing so, the Center for Middle Eastern studies sent a message to the students at UT that our university remains a place for uncensored speech and, according to the Center for Middle Eastern Studies, does not participate in partisan politics.

It is clear to me that the university strives to maintain this standard through discussion-oriented classes, an active student government and student publications. We are free in these and other mediums to express ourselves and our opinions.

Students have a responsibility to embrace this message from the University and to exercise our right to free speech concerning the Palestinian struggle and other world affairs while we remain students here. The issue at hand is not Palestinian freedom but the necessity for uncensored dialogue at our university. Whether you believe in a free Palestine or not, uncensored dialogue in the university setting is essential for successful international relations. The ideas that we form in our university years will stay with us for life, and we are the ones who will be working to solve and understand turmoil in the Middle East in the coming years. If “what starts here changes the world,” then let’s start by engaging in free dialogue.

The failure of the book raises the question: Where is the debate on Middle Eastern affairs that should be taking place here at UT? The Middle East is a region where much of the world’s conflict takes place. Why wouldn’t we seek to understand these conflicts?

Dr. Aghaie is pessimistic that the failure to publish “Memory of a Promise” will enhance student debate activity. “Groups need to find creative ways for dialogue … We want to be talking to each other,” he said.

We forget that it is a right rather than a privilege to express our opinion in this country. But even in this country, our careers can determine the freedom with which we will express our opinion. For now, we are members of an institution that has embraced its role as a place of free dialogue. This is the time to express yourself. Now is when your voices will be heard.

Mathis is an English and musicology major from Denton.

Several academic centers in the College of Liberal Arts face budget cuts next year after a college committee recommended cuts based on performance reviews.

The centers provide classes for students who are interested in specialized courses and obtain specialized research grants for UT. The cuts from the college also affect how many grants the centers are likely to receive.

Liberal Arts Dean Randy Diehl formed the Academic Planning and Advisory Committee last year to advise him on which areas of the budget to cut in light of a $3.75 million deficit in the college. Diehl said the committee has worked hard over the course of the year to make the changes and will help him make an informed final decision. The committee began collecting data in April from each of the academic centers, which most of the centers provided by late summer. APAC made recommendations to Diehl on Friday, but there is no deadline for when the final decision on cuts will be made.

Richard Flores, liberal arts associate dean for academic affairs, said the committee chose how much to cut from the centers based on several performance metrics, including total number of semester credit hours offered, total number of students in the major and monetary input. Flores said UT told the college a year ago that its budget would remain flat over the next two years, creating a budget deficit.

“We had laid out some assumptions in our plan based on recurring money we thought we would be getting,” Flores said. “When that didn’t happen, we had to go back to the drawing board.”

Flores said centers such as the Texas Language Center do not teach but do specialized research.

The college may cut 100 percent of their contribution to the Center for Russian, East European and Eurasian Studies and the Center for East Asian Studies’ budgets, 40 percent from the Center for Mexican American Studies and 30 percent from the Center for Middle Eastern Studies, among cuts to several other academic centers.

Only 15 percent of the $3.75 million deficit the college needs to fill is tied to faculty and teaching assistants, said James Southerland, assistant dean for business affairs.

Only the Center for European Studies gained college funding — about $10,000. The largest monetary decreases hit the Center for Mexican American Studies, the John L. Warfield Center for African and African American Studies and the Center for Middle Eastern Studies. Centers that are cut 28 percent or more will get a two-year window to find outside funding sources.

Carl Thorne-Thomsen, an economics senior and president of the Liberal Arts Council, said he has not seen the proposed cuts and does not know how they will affect students. He said there was no direct student involvement in the decisions.

“I don’t know if it would have changed anything, but it would have been helpful to have students directly involved,” he said. “But I think APAC is a pretty good representation of student and faculty needs.”

Kristen Brustad, chair of the Middle Eastern Studies Department, said cuts to the Center for Middle Eastern Studies college funds could also endanger its federal grant money, so the center is scrambling. The center’s staff helps maintain grants and if the University does not show support for the center, the U.S. Department of Education may pass up the center for grants, Brustad said.

“We stand to lose staff who help run our programs and grants,” she said. “We’re gritting our teeth about the whole thing.”

Alphabets, used in all modern written languages except Chinese and Japanese, originated from a single source, said Middle Eastern studies professor John Huehnergard.

Huehnergard gave a lecture on the alphabet’s origin as part of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies’ first Outreach Lecture Series.

“The alphabet, though, was invented only once, and it has swept away nearly every other writing system on the planet,” Huehnergard said.

Writing was independently invented at least three times — in ancient Mesopotamia, in China and in Mesoamerica. Early writing systems started as pictures representing objects and evolved into different types of characters. The main type of character was a logogram, a character which would represent a whole word.

Phonograms, characters that represented sounds, helped represent abstract concepts, grammatical phrases and names. The hundreds of logograms in early writing systems made them difficult to learn, although the basic principle is still used in Chinese today.

“Millions of people read Chinese every day, but it takes a long time to learn,” Huehnergard said.

Inscriptions discovered in 1993 contain the earliest known alphabet. The inscriptions, dated between 1900 and 1800 B.C., represented a Semitic language — probably Canaanite — based on Egyptian characters. The Canaanites lived in modern-day Israel, Palestine, Lebanon and Jordan but frequently immigrated to Egypt. The characters were pictures of objects that began with the sound the character represented. The alphabet reduced the number of characters from thousands to under 30. Huehnergard credited the alphabetic system’s simplicity with its global spread.

“It could be learned in a day instead of years,” he said. “Anyone could learn it, not just the elite who could afford years of schooling. It made writing available to everyone, regardless of status.”

Huehnergard said the lecture was aimed at teachers who must present information about the origins of writing systems as part of school curriculum.

Christopher Rose, outreach director for the center, said the lecture series was designed to extend the work the center does for K-12 education to the entire University community.

“We are trying to basically achieve a higher profile in the University because there’s a lot of people at UT who don’t know that we’re here,” he said.