Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Stanford Islamic studies grow too slowly for critics
By Lisa M. Krieger
Mercury News

Four years after Stanford University announced plans to expand its Islamic Studies program, students complain that its curriculum still lags far behind that of other elite universities.
Dismayed by the departure of three key professors since 2002 and the slow pace of replacing them, some Muslim students say the university isn't moving fast enough on its promise to build a world-class program focused on the Middle East. They also seek the creation of a Muslim Community Cultural Center, where students could socialize.
Although Muslims make up only 2 percent of Stanford's 13,000-member student body, the group lobbying the university includes non-Muslims, and is well-organized and eager to learn more about the Middle East -- an area increasingly relevant to global stability.
Stanford officials agree there have been setbacks and disappointments, but say the program is beginning to build momentum. The school offered 24 to 30 courses this year, a significant jump over last year, said Islamic Studies program director Robert Gregg.
Striving to hire the nation's top Islamic scholars in a highly competitive field, the university has lost promising faculty because of the Bay Area's high cost of living, Gregg said.
Additionally, the university's goal is not to focus solely on the Middle East region. Instead, Stanford has a more ambitious interdisciplinary plan to teach about all aspects of a faith that encompasses one-fifth of the world's population in 52 nations and 60 languages.
``For very real but mixed reasons, students feel a sense of malaise,'' Gregg said. ``This always takes more time than the students, or the administration, wishes.
``But Stanford is not a large university -- and it has be very selective about where it puts its resources,'' he added.
Stanford's deliberate pace is helping it steer clear of controversies faced by other top universities. Harvard, for example, returned a $2.5 million gift after revelations about the Arab donor's anti-Semitic, anti-American leanings.
Gregg said it's been 15 years since he began lobbying Stanford deans to build a program. During that time, peer institutions such as the University of California-Berkeley, Princeton and Duke have built strong Islamic or Middle Eastern studies programs.
Demand for classes skyrocketed in the wake of Sept. 11, the invasion of Afghanistan and the Iraq war. In 2003, the school received a gift of $2.5 million from former Oracle executive Sohaib Abbasi and his wife, Sara, to establish a program in Islamic studies.
With an additional $2 million from Stanford alumna Lysbeth Warren and matching funds from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the program's core endowment now totals $9 million.
``Strengthening the study of Islam is one of the highest priorities for the school,'' said Sharon Long, dean of the School of Humanities and Sciences, in announcing the Abbasi gift.
But students say there still aren't enough classes -- and those offered are oversubscribed.
``I love Stanford and never would have gone anywhere else, but one of my big frustrations is the lack of courses about the Middle East and Islamic studies. There is no way I'll be able to stay there for graduate school,'' said Omar Shakir, a senior from San Jose.
Shakir created his own summer-abroad programs in Morocco, Egypt and Palestine and is now studying at Oxford University in England to do course work not offered at Stanford.
Student Max Weiss agreed. ``How can a world-class institution like Stanford continue to be taken seriously when it is so far behind in such an important field as Islamic studies?''
Visiting assistant professor Ellen McLarney, on leave from Duke University to teach classes on the Koran, said Stanford is aware of its shortcomings but is trying to tread carefully.
``Schools often don't want to be dragged into the controversies surrounding issues in the Middle East,'' she noted. ``But in this political climate, it happens all the time.''
Stanford's Gregg says two new professors have been hired and will arrive in time for fall classes. Administrators this week approved the hiring of three more.
While sensitive to student perceptions, ``the faculty believe that they have a better perspective on what is needed in the curriculum than do students,'' he said.
The number of courses in Islam are equal to, or surpass, classes in Judaism or Christianity, he said, even though 50 percent of incoming freshman are Christian, according to university statistics. Eric Brown, a representative for the Hewlett Foundation, said it ``is not worried or concerned'' about Stanford's pace. ``It often takes time and is difficult to find the right people.''
Gregg echoed those points:
``Stanford has an opportunity to become a major player in the field by offering something unique. We are building on what we've already started. It takes time. The prospects are very good for the future.''
Contact Lisa Krieger at lkrieger@mercurynews.com or (408) 920-5565.

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