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Students holding signs protesting the defunding of the Middle East Center on Locust Walk. Credit: Jesse Zhang

Penn is actively working to support the Middle East Center after it lost all of its federal funding, Vice Provost for Education Karen Detlefsen said at a recent webinar. 

On Thursday, the University hosted a Zoom open session with over 30 students, faculty members, and administrators about its upcoming 2024 re-accreditation evaluation with the Middle States Commission on Higher Education

At the session, some students expressed concerns about the MEC’s loss of funding and its potential impact on whether Penn will be re-accredited, calling on the University to provide greater institutional support for the center. In response, Detlefsen said that University administrators are optimistic that a conclusion to support the MEC will be “in place quite quickly.”

Penn’s educational programs are evaluated for accreditation every eight years by the Middle States Commission on Higher Education, an international agency that performs ongoing monitoring of universities and works with the U.S. Department of Education to set and enforce standards regarding educational objectives. Detlefsen’s office serves as a contact point for the upcoming re-accreditation

During the question-and-answer portion of the webinar, College junior and Penn Arab Student Society Vice President Ranim Albarkawi asked whether the MEC’s loss of funding would be an issue included in the MSCHE’s self-study evaluation — which is part of the process through which accreditation is achieved. Albarkawi said that the theme of the self-study — “inclusively and effectively educating the whole person for the 21st century” — is not possible without a fully functioning MEC.

“I believe that we should include an evaluation of why the MEC lost its federal funding to support the proposed self-study and to understand what can be done differently moving forward,” Albarkawi said. “As an accredited university, we should have a robust Middle East Center, especially in the 21st century.”

MSCHE Lead Vice President Idna Corbett said that she is not familiar with the Middle East Center, but confirmed that the self-study is meant to address these types of issues.

“That is exactly what this self-study is doing: examining the institution’s efforts and the institution’s commitments to diversity, equity, and inclusiveness. Through this self-study, the team, the steering committee, and working group are not only looking at one specific area, but looking overall,” Corbett said. 

Albarkawi said that she believes Penn’s treatment of the MEC does not currently meet the standards of accreditation, which include design, delivery, and support of the student experience. She said her concerns are exemplified by the loss of Foreign Language and Area Studies scholarships as a result of the funding wipeout, which supported first-generation, low-income students.

In response to Albarkawi's concerns, Detlefsen said that University administrators are currently having conversations to ensure that the MEC has sufficient funding to move forward. 

“Conversations are happening right now across university leadership — Dean of the School of Arts and Sciences [Paul Sniegowski], [Interim Provost Beth Winkelstein], and others — to make sure that the MEC has the funding required to move forward, to understand what happened with the application for funding, and to put together a plan for support of the center this year, and moving forward,” Detlefsen said.

She added that the University appreciates students voicing their support of the MEC. 

“We’re hoping for a conclusion that will include supporting the center to be in place quite quickly," Detlefsen said. 

On Aug. 4, the United States Department of Education told the MEC that it had denied the center’s application to continue receiving NRC funding and FLAS fellowship grants, amounting to nearly $500,000 in lost funds — nearly all of the center's financial support. At the first University Council meeting of the year on Wednesday, students demanded that Penn support the MEC, delivering speeches and holding up signs expressing disappointment with the center’s defunding. 

In a written statement sent to The Daily Pennsylvanian, Albarkawi said she hopes that by putting the MEC’s loss of funding on the MSCHE’s radar at the open session, Penn will more quickly develop a “clear plan” to not only fund, but potentially expand the MEC and its programs going forward. 

At the end of the MSCHE self-study evaluation, a steering committee provides feedback on areas the institution is doing well in and areas where the institution could make improvements, according to the webinar presentation. 

“Penn definitely can implement [the self-study recommendations], and I believe that the extent to which they do will depend on the persistent support of the MEC from staff and students,” Albarkawi wrote to the DP. “I think that involving student and staff voices every step of the way is the only route to ensuring the MEC receives exactly what it needs.”