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Latest Archeological and Cultural News of Iran and the Iranian World


University Senate approves Persian Language as one the new majors

22 April 2008



By Kyle Goon


LONDON, (CAIS) -- The University Senate yesterday unanimously approved two new majors and minors in Arabic studies and Persian studies, a move professors and administrators say will address a long-neglected area of academic study and also satisfy a government demand for talent.

The Persian major is one of only a handful in the entire country, joining such institutions as UCLA and the University of Texas at Austin. Program Director Ahmad Karimi-Hakkak expects the program to draw in students from the Washington area, home to the third-largest Iranian diaspora in the United States, he said.

The new programs are major additions to the university's academic offerings. Four years ago, Persian studies didn't exist, and there was no dedicated funding or faculty for the few Arabic courses offered. The vote yesterday all but ensures Persian and Arabic will have a permanent place in the languages, literatures and cultures school. 

"The second generation of Iranian-Americans in this area are coming of age and going to universities," Karimi-Hakkak said. "Now, we are going to actively recruit and make sure that every student who may have an interest at least hears about these majors and minors."

The university has offered Arabic courses for many years and Persian for the last four years, but mostly at introductory and intermediate levels. Madeline Zilfi, a professor who specializes in Ottoman history, said she was on five different committees over a span of 20 years that pushed for more advanced Arabic classes. Their efforts were largely ignored by the administration, who Zilfi said suffered from "a lack of vision."

"Arabic is one of the most widely used and spoken languages in the world. It's a [United Nations] language, and our nation is deeply involved in Middle Eastern policy," Zilfi said. "I consider it a badge of shame that it's taken this long to get this program developed. We're supposed to be on the cutting edge."

Charles E. Butterworth, a professor emeritus who specializes in medieval Arabic and Islamic political philosophy, said he advocated Arabic classes when he first came to the university in 1969. 

"They ignored it then, because they didn't understand the importance of the language," he said. "Why did it take until 2004 to create a program?" 

The answer may be that government demand for people with knowledge of Arabic and Farsi [Persian] has skyrocketed since Sept. 11, 2001, an observation several faculty members made.

The federal government already funds a two-year graduate program in Arabic and Farsi [Persian] hosted by the university called the National Persian Flagship Program. Students spend one year studying at the university and one year abroad, according to the program's website. Students are then obligated to serve in a government agency for at least a year.

Students such as Mark Jubar, a junior government and politics major with a minor in terrorism studies, realize federal agencies are eager to hire graduates who are fluent in Middle Eastern languages. 

"It's a language that's relevant to modern events and relevant to the war," he said. "Hopefully, I can get some kind of government job that uses Arabic."

Not all students are interested in the new language programs purely for job prospects. Allison White, a junior Spanish and Russian double major, was attracted by their unusual style and connections to a culture that few Americans understand.

"It really is a beautiful language. It's very literary - there's a lot of ways you can approach it and things you can find in it," White said. "And politically it helps you understand the situation in Iran today. Looking at Iran is not a black-and-white issue."

Michael Long, director of the university's language programs, first proposed a Persian studies center when he was hired in 2003. Now, the program is thriving with a $3 million donation from the Roshan Cultural Heritage Institute, a nonprofit organization founded by Pierre Omidyar, the creator of eBay, dedicated to the preservation and education of Persian culture.

Long believes the university is ahead of the game in this instance and the Persian studies major will see more demand as U.S.-Iranian relations become more important in foreign policy. 

"We'll be a leader in the country in Persian," Long said. "I already back our program against any other."





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