Bahman Baktiari
Bahman Baktiari

SALT LAKE CITY — The University of Utah and state officials are scrambling to reverse a U.S. Department of Education decision to strip the U.'s Middle East Center of its designation as a National Resource Center.

The center, one of only a handful of its kind in the country, and a prominent fixture on the U. campus since its founding in 1960, was informed by letter on Wednesday that its grant renewal, worth $2.4 million over the next four years, has been rejected.

University officials are downplaying the setback, but an impressive letter-writing campaign is under way. All five members of Utah's congressional delegation, Gov. Gary Herbert, state Attorney General Mark Shurtleff and several community groups have appealed to the DOE to reconsider.

The MEC weathered controversy in 2008 when director Ibrahim Karawan said he was resigning to protest humanities Dean Robert Newman's removal of two faculty members from the center's governing committee. One of the two, Hebrew professor Harris Lenowitz, later sued Newman for defamation in response to a letter in which the dean said the professors created a hostile environment that had driven away female faculty.

In the lawsuit, which has been dismissed, Lenowitz said the departed female professors left for better jobs because the U. had not been paying MEC faculty competitive salaries. The suit also said that Newman clashed with Lenowitz and Sluglett over the dean's support for a male faculty candidate with "innovative fundraising ideas."

Lenowitz retired this summer, and Sluglett has been reinstated, although Newman disputes that he was ever dismissed in the first place.

Both Newman and David Pershing, senior vice president of academic affairs, told the Deseret News they do not believe the turmoil affected the MEC's chances of renewing its grant. Newman said DOE officials told him personnel decisions would not be a factor.

Since the application scores are confidential, it's unclear why the MEC did not make the cut. According to a DOE spokesman, 19 of 28 Middle East centers that applied will be funded.

Current MEC director Bahman Baktiari, an expert on Iran who came to the U. from the University of Maine in July 2009, suggested the grant awards are "political" and said he hopes Utah's representatives in Congress can secure earmarks to replace the lost funding. He noted that Sen. Orrin Hatch intervened to restore a grant that was initially denied in 1999.

"We should not take this as any kind of negative," Baktiari said.

Speculating that the DOE may be focusing instead on creating new centers, Newman said that regardless of the federal grant, the U. would continue to build the MEC. He said MEC student enrollment is up 35 percent, with roughly 200 undergraduate and 100 graduate students.

"There's an ebb and flow to these grant cycles," Newman said. "We want to sustain that (NRC) designation, but the momentum of the Middle East Center the past year or two has been just extraordinary."

The MEC added a professor of Arabic language last year and another of Arabic linguistics this year, and Baktiari expects to replace Lenowitz next year.

Half of the DOE grant would have funded language study fellowships for 14 graduate students. A meeting is set for Monday to discuss how to support them.

In his letter to Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, Shurtleff said the MEC is a valuable resource for the 25,000 Muslims living in the Intermountain West and a source of support to Utah's growing population of Iraqi refugees.

This summer, the MEC has brought to campus Israel's ambassador to the United Nations and the U.S. ambassador to the United Arab Emirates. The MEC is also working to raise the profile of public health and environmental issues in the Middle East.

The U. did receive a DOE grant to establish an Asian studies consortium in collaboration with BYU.