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Students hold up signs at the University Council meeting on Sept. 14, 2022, in protest of the defunding of the Middle East Center.

Credit: Jesse Zhang

Student representatives demanded that Penn support the Middle East Center at the first University Council meeting of the year.

During Wednesday’s meeting — the first to be chaired by President Liz Magill — nearly a dozen students demonstrated their disappointment with the center's recent loss of all federal funding. Several students shared their thoughts about the importance of the center, while others held up signs with messages like “No Funding = Loss of Culture Scholarship Discourse” and “The MEC is our Community”.

In a speech, College sophomore and Muslim Students’ Association representative Burhan Brula called on University administrators to provide the necessary funding to maintain and expand the MEC. On Aug. 4, the United States Department of Education informed the MEC that 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.

“To lose the programming and outreach efforts of the MEC would be to lose a crucial part of ensuring visibility and understanding of the often misunderstood people that make up the many Middle Eastern nations the center is committed to studying,” Brula said in his speech. "On campus, there is no other space that has the same mission or impact as the Middle East Center. It is an irreplaceable part of the greater Penn community.”

Brula’s speech contained two action items for the University: allocating resources to maintain existing programming efforts like scholarships and student initiatives previously supported by Title VI funding, and increasing “institutional funding and support” for the MEC. 

Credit: Jesse Zhang

DP reporter Jared Mitovich speaks to Burhan Brula, Muslim Students' Association representative and College sophomore.

In response to a request for comment, School of Arts and Sciences Dean Steven Fluharty, who oversees the MEC, reiterated his previous statement sent to The Daily Pennsylvanian. He noted that the school is currently “considering the challenge” of how to support the MEC without its federal funding – adding that "this process is ongoing, and there are no further details at this time.”

The MSA’s appeal to the University was echoed during the speeches of six students representing a wide range of groups on the council, including the Asian Pacific Student Coalition and the Abuse and Sexual Assault Prevention board.

Latinx Coalition representative and College senior Camila Irabien was one of those who supported the MEC to administrators at the meeting during her own speech. Irabien, a former DP staffer, said that funding the MEC was “especially important” given the recent reopening of the ARCH building, which she said demonstrates the value of dedicating space for cultural groups on campus.

University Council is a forum of dozens of Penn administrators, faculty, and students that convene monthly. They are authorized to initiate policy proposals and oversee the activities of the University in all its phases.

Credit: Jesse Zhang President Liz Magill taking notes during the University Council meeting on Sept. 14, 2022.

After his speech to the University Council, Brula told the DP that the decision to speak at the meeting was the first part of an effort to call attention to how the loss of funding for the MEC is "seriously hurting" a lot of people. He added that the MSA made a coordinated effort to have other student organizations on the Council echo his calls to most effectively convey their message.

"We want [the University] to take action for it because, in many ways, Penn as a university is responsible for the decision of the Department of Education to cut its funding, and we want them to make up for it," Brula said.

College junior Ranim Albarkawi was one of the students who went to the council meeting in support of the MEC. Albarkawi, Penn Arab Student Society’s vice president of external affairs, said that the center is an essential part of campus because it provides Arab students with an open space to discuss their issues and histories.

“We really just wanted to represent how important the center, and the community it provides, is to us,” Albarkawi said. “We want to ensure that all the programs that we had before can be sustained, as well as expanded upon.”

Albarkawi, who was awarded a Hebrew studies Foreign Language and Area Studies scholarship the past summer thanks to Title VI grants, added that the MEC’s reliance on federal funding to conduct its operations serves as a statement to how Penn views the center and its commitment to investing in it. 

College junior and PASS community chair Safa Elzanfali said that she attended the University Council meeting in support of the MEC because of the pivotal role that the center has played in her time at Penn. In addition to the educational opportunities and mentorship programs that the MEC supports, many Arab cultural clubs and student organizations rely on the center for institutional support, according to Elzanfali. 

“The loss of that funding is just a huge space of uncertainty for a lot of students,” Elzanfali said. “If we don't have that support from the Middle East Center, a substantial amount of our programming is just lost.”

College junior and MSA board member Sarah Asfari said that she plans to continue to advocate for the MEC, and she appreciates the support she has received so far from other students and faculty members. She said that the University must take an active role in this process, calling it a “crucial step in making Penn’s commitment to diversity and equity a tangible reality.”

PASS released a statement on Wednesday night condemning the MEC’s loss of funding. The statement asks the University about the status of the center's scholarships, programs, scholars, and staff. They also call upon Penn to ensure that the MEC is eligible for federal funding in the next cycle.

Elzanfali said that she hopes that the Penn administration takes this situation seriously.

“If [Penn] preaches inclusivity, and preaches all these educational standards, then they should be considering the voices of this significant population,” Elzanfali said.