NELC to suffer the loss of key language professors

With the expected departures of four professors, Yale’s Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations Department is facing an uphill battle as it attempts to grow in response to increased student demand for modern Middle East and Arabic language course offerings.

Arabic language professor Bassam Frangieh is the latest NELC faculty member to announce plans to leave Yale, after accepting a tenure-track position at the University of Delaware. Arabic language professor Samer Traboulsi and Turkish language professor Kahar Barat are leaving the University this spring after their one-year contracts expire. In addition, Northwest Semitic languages professor Siam Bhayro also will be departing Yale, but he said he will return in the fall of 2006 after a year-long teaching stint at University College in London.

The NELC Department now must scramble to fill faculty vacancies in its first and second-year Arabic language classes, which have become more popular among students in recent years. But the loss of Frangieh, who is credited with building a strong Arabic language program at Yale, will be the biggest blow to the University, professors and students said.

“Allowing the University of Delaware to hire Professor Frangieh away from Yale is a mistaken and very unfortunate decision,” anthropology and NELC professor Harvey Weiss said. “Frangieh is acknowledged to be the best, most experienced, most admired teacher of college-level Arabic in the United States. Yale shoots itself in the foot if it does not keep Frangieh here with us.”

Frangieh, whom Yale wooed away from Georgetown University in 1987, is known for his unique approach to teaching introductory Arabic. During his time at Yale, he has attracted a strong student following to the language, which only increased after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

“A lot of people come to Yale just to study Arabic,” Frangieh said. “The reason they choose Yale is because of my Arabic class. I’m a school by itself. I created my teaching style. I became a method.”

When Frangieh received an offer in February from Delaware, he said he was initially reluctant to accept it.

“I gave 12 years of my life with devotion to a place,” Frangieh said. “It was a very hard decision, but Yale couldn’t match the offer, so I had to leave. If Yale had created a position on tenure track for me, I would have stayed.”

One of Frangieh’s students, Sarah Gibson GRD ’09, said she will miss what she termed Frangieh’s “tough love” approach to teaching.

“When I found out he was leaving, I just kind of lost it,” Gibson said. “I don’t know what’s going to happen with the Arabic program. I don’t understand why a professor who is so popular, especially given the increased interest in studying Arabic — why wouldn’t you give him tenure at this point after being on the faculty for 12 years?”

Underlying Frangieh’s departure are deeper concerns among NELC faculty with the management of the department and its current focus on medieval and ancient Middle Eastern studies, which many professors and students said does not properly reflect student demand for courses on contemporary Middle Eastern society and culture.

“The NELC Department at Yale cannot afford to be dominated by medieval manuscript fetishism,” Weiss said. “Why do we not have professors of modern Arabic and professors of Arab world cultural anthropology, Arab world history, Arab world literature?”

NELC professor Benjamin Foster said the department’s emphasis on the medieval Middle East is the result of a tacit policy created between Princeton, Yale and the University of Pennsylvania during the 1960s, under which each school would focus on different aspects of the Middle East with Yale concentrating on ancient history.

Now, Foster said, scholars at Yale have realized that it is academically and socially unacceptable not to address contemporary issues in the Middle East.

“The pressure is on us from the undergraduates to expand,” Foster said. “Our current objective for the next five years if to expand in the area of modern Middle East.”

But the department will need a larger budget if it is going to be capable of fulfilling its goals, professors said. The department recently made a request to the Provost’s Office for the resources to make a hire in the modern Middle East, Foster said. Though he said he thinks the department has made a good case, he conceded that the NELC Department must compete with other, sometimes larger, departments for funding.

“I think the University could commit more resources [to the NELC Department],” he said. “Generally speaking, those who have more receive more, those who have not receive less.”

Traboulsi, who taught second-year Arabic this year despite having a primary focus in Middle Eastern and Islamic history, said a shortage of funding was only one of the reasons for his disenchantment with the department.

“The department does not support its faculty,” said Traboulsi, who will be teaching at the University of North Carolina at Asheville next fall. “When I had problems in my class, NELC did not support me and back me. Departments are supposed to stand behind us.”

Traboulsi suggested that discontent among faculty in the department may lead to more departures in the future.

“There are more to come,” he said.

But NELC major Nahaliel Kanfer ’06 said he has been satisfied with his experiences in the department thus far, noting that the problems it faces are not unlike those facing departments at universities throughout the country.

“The academic world is constantly in flux,” Kanfer said. “It’s hard to always have faculty available for the classes you want to take. Because it is a transitional time, there are going to be complaints.”

The department is working to address those complaints, NELC Director of Undergraduate Studies Hala Nassar said. The department is currently conducting searches to fill Traboulsi’s and Barat’s slots, and will launch a search to replace Frangieh, she said. Next year, Nassar will teach a college seminar on the modern Middle East and she said the department will have a modern Middle East track added to the NELC major. The department may also offer a fourth year of Arabic language study, she said; it currently offers three years.

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