Penn will fully fund the Middle East Center after it lost its federal Title VI funding, which had temporarily jeopardized the center and its future.
The University’s funding plan — a collaboration between the MEC, the School of Arts and Sciences, and the provost’s office — will be announced at the Oct. 26 University Council meeting and will sustain the center for four and a half years. The MEC lost its federal Title VI funding from the United States Department of Education in August due to insufficient institutional support from the University.
In response to a request for comment, SAS Dean Steven Fluharty wrote to The Daily Pennsylvanian that the school is committed to supporting the center through its next application for federal funding from the U.S. Department of Education.
"I am delighted that in partnership with the Provost's office, the School of Arts and Sciences will provide support for our Middle East Center that will allow it to continue most of its core activities in the absence of federal funding,” Fluharty wrote. “With this plan in place, the Center will continue to be a centerpiece of the School's profile in Middle East studies."
After learning of the loss of funding, student representatives demanded that Penn support the MEC at the first University Council meeting of the year, holding signs and delivering speeches. Some of the students continued to work with the Undergraduate Assembly to find funding solutions. Faculty and students said they were relieved that Penn would fund the MEC.
In addition to relieving the stress that was brought on as a result of the center’s loss of funding, MEC Executive Director John Ghazvinian said that the University’s response presents an “exciting opportunity” to rethink and potentially broaden the MEC’s mission going forward.
“The fact that our funding structure is evolving represents a moment of transition, and of course, moments of transition always carry a lot of challenges with them,” Ghazvinian said. “But I think there is a genuine feeling of optimism and excitement about what the possibilities [are] that lie ahead of where we are at this point.”
Ghazvinian added that conversations are “still ongoing.” Due to the nature of the Title VI grant, the activities of the MEC were restricted to mainly academic purposes. Faculty and students said that with the new University funding, the MEC can be expanded to focus more on community space for Middle Eastern students and those interested in Middle Eastern studies.
“You can probably look for a more robust commitment to serving as a kind of space for students in the months and years ahead and to really helping to solidify, to making sure that students feel that there is a presence on campus for the Middle East, [and] also, for anyone who is interested in the Middle East and wants to learn more about it,” Ghazvinian said.
The UA also worked with administrators to find a funding solution, according to College and Wharton senior and UA President Carson Sheumaker, who said the group held several meetings with the Provost’s office.
“We are especially happy that no student will be losing any scholarship money and with the fact that there is now new room for social programming for students through the MEC,” Sheumaker wrote.
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 Carey Law School certificate in Middle East and Islamic Studies. The MEC is also heavily involved in the broader Philadelphia community as the city’s only center for the study of the Middle East.
College junior Sarah Asfari, a Modern Middle Eastern Studies major and board member of the Penn Muslim Students Association, has been involved in meetings with the University regarding the MEC’s loss of funding. Asfari was also one of several students who lost their $15,000 Foreign Language and Area Studies scholarship that she was awarded over the summer as a result of the loss of funding.
Asfari said that the administration has been helpful in finding a funding solution for the MEC.
“The administration has been really responsive and helpful in finding a way to mitigate the effects of the loss of public funding,” she said.
Asfari added that she hopes that moving forward, the administration will also support the expansion of the MEC into a hub for Middle Eastern students.
“It is my sincere hope that moving forward we will be able to maintain, and very importantly, expand the center and its programming and efforts,” Asfari said. “If the center were to be expanded, one of my hopes would be that it could become more than just an academic space.
Asfari also said that Penn placed particular focus on ensuring that students that recently earned scholarships through the federal funding would still be financially supported in their studies.
“I'm very appreciative of all of the support that we have been getting on the situation,” Asfari said. “It's been very heartwarming and it, as I mentioned earlier, is my sincere hope that this can be one of many steps taken at Penn to improve the representation and resources for Middle Eastern students, Middle Eastern Studies, and anyone else who would benefit from those resources.”