Future of Yale’s Arabic instruction in jeopardy

As students of Arabic at Yale University, we were shocked to learn of the impending departure of Dr. Bassam K. Frangieh from the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations for a position at the University of Delaware.

We will not elaborate further here on Frangieh’s invaluable skill in teaching Arabic, his warmth and generosity toward his students, and his interest in students’ development, which exceeds what is expected even of the greatest teachers. These qualities are well known to those who have studied and worked with Frangieh, just as Yale recognized them when it awarded him the Prize for Distinguished Teaching and Excellence in 2001. We have also attested to our experience of Frangieh in letters sent to the President’s Office this week.

Rather, we underscore that our shock has a second source, one that this University must confront: Yale does not provide adequate instruction in modern standard Arabic. Frangieh has proved the exception to this in our experience. Even so, the observations that lead us to characterize Arabic instruction at this University as inadequate have persisted outside of his courses. In our estimation, with his departure Yale cannot properly be said to have a modern Arabic program.

As proud Yale students, and as students of Arabic, we would like to see this problem remedied. To that end, we call on the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations to hold a meeting open to all current and past students of Arabic at Yale before reading period this semester. We ask that the department explain in detail its plans for Arabic instruction after Frangieh’s departure, to include information on the appointments it will make to fill the immense gaps in instruction at the introductory and intermediate levels that will exist after the end of this semester. We also ask, as consumers of the education the department provides, that it listen to our concerns about the quality of Arabic instruction provided by its faculty. Specifically, we have seen that in its faculty appointments, the department is forced to choose between faculty who are experts in literature, philosophy and history, and faculty who are qualified to be instructors in the Arabic language, and that Arabic has consistently lost out.

The problems we identify affect this University as a whole. Yale publicly and internally, as is abundantly clear in the statement of the curriculum found in the Yale College Programs of Study, emphasizes the importance of its students being proficient in foreign languages and informed about the world outside the United States. The emphasis is called into question by the current state of instruction in Arabic provided by the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations. The University also emphasizes that a key goal of the education it offers is to prepare its students to be leaders. This claim is absurd in the face of the lack of adequate instruction in Arabic at a time when the United States has become increasingly involved in and affected by events in the Middle East.

In acknowledgement of the effects of the deficiency in Arabic instruction on the University and with an understanding that our concerns likely involve issues beyond the strict competence of the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations, we hope that the meeting we call for will include, in addition to the faculty of the department, administrators outside the department who are centrally concerned with the issue, specifically: Ian Shapiro, director, Yale Center for International and Area Studies; Peter Salovey, dean of Yale College; Jon Butler, dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences; Andrew D. Hamilton, provost of the University; and Richard Levin, president of the University.



Alicyn Cooley, a senior in Ezra Stiles College, and Jonah Schulhofer-Wohl, a first-year graduate student in the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations, are members of Students for Arabic at Yale. A full list of this letter’s signees may be found at http://myfiles.yale.edu/jbs46/say.html.

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