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The Middle East Center on Sept. 7, 2022. Credit: Jesse Zhang

The Penn Middle East Center has lost its federal Title VI funding due to insufficient institutional support from the University, threatening the future of Middle Eastern studies on campus. 

In August, the United States Department of Education denied the MEC’s application for grant money, which it had consistently received every four years since its founding in 1966. The MEC was previously one of several federally recognized National Resource Centers at Penn, a status that granted it funding. The center was also provided funds to allocate student language fellowships with the DOE’s Foreign Language & Area Studies program.

On Aug. 4, the MEC learned it had been stripped of its NRC funding eligibility and FLAS fellowship grants, amounting to nearly $500,000 in lost funds — nearly all of the center's financial support, MEC Assistant Director Ibrahim Bakri said.

DOE officials informed MEC staff that the University was not sufficiently supporting the center with its own money and efforts, leading its grant application for the 2022-2026 cycle to be denied. This comes despite the MEC emphasizing Penn's commitment to Middle East studies in the application and receiving perfect scores for its plans and how it has previously administered the grants. 

The MEC employs several full-time staffers and supports the work of dozens of faculty, students, and Ph.D. candidates. It also oversees the Modern Middle Eastern Studies major and minor, which have become increasingly popular, and the Penn Law School certificate in Middle East and Islamic Studies. Students, staff, and faculty affiliated with the MEC described the loss of funds as an unexpected and “devastating” blow that — if no remedy comes from the University — will jeopardize every aspect of the center’s operations, including staff salaries, student scholarships, and center programming.

"Alongside our outstanding faculty and education programs, the Middle East Center is an important component of the School of Arts and Sciences’ ongoing commitment to research and teaching in Middle East studies," School of Arts and Sciences Dean Steven Fluharty — who oversees the MEC — wrote in an emailed statement to The Daily Pennsylvanian. "SAS is now considering the challenge of how to support the Center in the absence of its federal funding."

The MEC is also heavily involved in the broader Philadelphia community as the city’s only center for the study of the Middle East. The MEC provides free lectures at K-12 schools, offers workshops for teachers, and participates in public scholarship through film festivals, conferences, and academic symposiums, Bakri said. 

“With the loss of the funding, all of a sudden, our four years of planning came to an abrupt halt,” Bakri said. "All of the sudden, we were put in a position where we had to think of keeping ourselves steady, but also fundamentally shifting." 

He added that the MEC is an important place on campus to foster a culture of understanding and community for people who are from the Middle East and people who care about Middle Eastern studies. 

College junior Sarah Asfari, a Modern Middle Eastern Studies major and board member of the Penn Muslim Students Association, said she was “frustrated” and “confused” after learning the center had lost its funding. As a result of the loss, she said that she will lose the FLAS Arabic studies scholarship that she was awarded over the summer, making it more difficult for her to afford college as a first-generation, low-income student.

“The scholarship is worth $15,000. I’m a FGLI student; my dad has been unemployed for weeks,” Asfari said. “This is a really important amount of money for me because I need scholarships and grants to help me get through my time at Penn for things that financial aid doesn’t cover or doesn’t cover enough.” 

She attributed the MEC's loss of funding to "essentially, Penn's negligence" and said she believes this loss of funding is emblematic of a larger issue of a lack of University support and resources for Middle Eastern, North African, and Arab students. 

“It’s really taken a toll on me because it's not just about the money; it's also about the environment, the campus culture,” Asfari said.

She added that it is worthy to note that Middle Eastern students currently do not have their own cultural space on campus, unlike other marginalized groups. 

On Sept. 2, Asfari sent an email to College of Arts and Sciences Dean Paul Sniegowski, in which she wrote that she hopes that her personal experience will help stress how the campus community is suffering from the MEC's defunding. 

"It is my hope that we can begin to have a conversation about how to support the center until the next Title VI funding cycle begins in order to keep its amazing work going," Asfari wrote in her email to Sniegowski. 

Asfari said that, as of Sept. 7, she has not received a reply to the message.  

Joseph Lowry, an associate professor of Arabic and Islamic Studies who is affiliated with the MEC, wrote to the DP that the loss of funding was a “negative development” for the study of the Middle East at Penn "in many, many respects" — including funding for undergraduate and graduate study of Middle Eastern languages. 

Bakri said that the MEC is meeting with SAS administrators in the next week. He said that center staff are hopeful that the University will “provide clarity” on the situation and offer a solution that will let the center “rebuild.” 

“With the support of the University, I am hopeful that the value and the importance of the work that we've done is known,” Bakri said, “and that in time, we will be able to build something not only as good as it's been, but something even more rich, something greater.”