President Richard Levin recently wrote an essay in Newsweek Magazine pointing out how universities are branching out and becoming more global. In an earlier Newsweek article, Yale was considered the world’s third most global university behind Harvard and Stanford. But in my field, Middle Eastern history, the Yale administration’s actions tell a very different story.
In my second year at Yale, I took a graduate seminar on modern Iranian history. Our course list included basic primary and secondary sources in Persian for the study of modern Iran — none of which could be found in Sterling Memorial Library. Imagine my surprise when I tried to order just a few of the relevant books and was told that the library does not have money for purchasing Persian books. I have never had a similar experience ordering English- or French-language books. I had to rely on Borrow Direct and interlibrary loans to do the most basic readings for my seminar and to begin research on my dissertation.
My alma mater, Canada’s McGill University, though significantly underfunded compared to Yale, managed to have rather extensive Persian holdings. Perhaps, I thought to myself, this was a problem specific to American universities. But a quick survey of Persian collections in major American universities revealed that this was not the case. Not only did all other Ivy League schools have a more extensive Persian collection than Yale, but so did a considerable number of American state universities. Even more embarrassing was the fact that I could get more research done in the West Vancouver Memorial Library, a relatively small library located near my hometown in North Vancouver, than at Yale University.
By my third year, however, I had reason for optimism. Yale had begun to receive government funding in the form of Title VI funding for the strengthening of studies and resources related to the Middle East. As part of Yale’s application for the Title VI grant in 2002-2003, I helped collect information on the strengths and weaknesses of programs related to the Middle East. Aside from the lack of full-time professors, perhaps the single greatest weakness was the lack of library resources. Yes, Yale has a rather large Arabic collection. But Arabic is not the only language of the Middle East. The Persian collection was sparse, and the Turkish collection was (and still is) virtually nonexistent.
With the generous help of Title VI funding, Yale hired a Persian bibliographer, Fereshteh Molavi, to build the collection. I sent her a list of approximately 30 books — all of which she ordered and catalogued in a timely manner. She also purchased key reference and bibliographical material, several key journals and newspapers from the earlier half of the 20th century (Yale had none before she came) in addition to key canonical Persian literary texts. I had sent a list of over 600 books, which she was working on when she was abruptly let go this past summer.
The apparent reason for scrapping the position was lack of funding. In other words, Yale lacks funding for Persian literature while Princeton, Harvard, Columbia, McGill, numerous major state schools and the West Vancouver public library do not. Perhaps even more shocking, Yale has violated the terms of its Title VI funding by employing the Persian bibliographer for two years rather than three. Whatever the reason for Yale reneging on its promise — administrative shortsightedness, apathy or cultural insensitivity — the potential implications of Yale’s glaring oversight are disheartening.
Yale prides itself on being a “global university” and a world-class producer of knowledge and leaders in the United States and around the world. Why then is it unwilling to provide the bare minimum for a decent understanding of Iranian (or, for that matter, Afghan, Tajik, and medieval to early modern South Asian) history, culture and politics? Given the historical juncture at which we stand, with the Middle East in turmoil and tensions between Iran and the United States steadily rising, Yale’s decision to take a step backward in providing future policymakers, academics, analysts and politicians with adequate resources on Iran is reprehensible.
Farzin Vejdani is a fifth-year graduate student in the Department of History.