Lehigh’s Center for Global Islamic Studies has operated for seven years on donations and grants, but has never received funding from the university. Now that those initial funds have run out, the center is in danger of being shut down.
Rob Rozehnal, the director of the Center for Global Islamic Studies and an associate professor of religion studies, said the center was founded in 2009 through the support of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Since then, it has hosted 11 traveling scholars, who have specialized in such things as Arabic language and literature, Islamic art and architecture, Islam and gender, and others.
“But the funding was temporary, and visiting scholars moved on,” Rozehnal said. “Since the end of Mellon funding in the spring of 2014, the center has remained in a state of limbo.”
Zara Khan, an adjunct professor in the political science department, believes the center to be important as a space on campus for students to study Islamic culture. Islam is one of the major global religions, she said, and having the center legitimizes the Muslim world’s contributions to society, in both historical and contemporary contexts. Khan is at Lehigh replacing Nandini Deo, an associate professor of political science, who is on maternity leave.
“It’s a matter of civic duty to support the center,” she said. “It is also important due to the rise of Islamophobia in the United States.”
Rozehnal said the future of the center now lies in the hands of Donald Hall, the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences; Provost Pat Farrell and President John Simon.
“We are definitely committed to making sure the center survives,” Hall said, speaking on behalf of himself and Simon.
Hall said the main goal to get donors to fund the center.
“We do have a strong interest from donors,” he said.
The College of Arts and Sciences has received some money toward the center — not yet enough — but Hall said he is optimistic.
He said he is deeply committed to dialogue across cultures, and that the center plays a large part in that effort.
Khan said she thinks allowing the center to dissipate would be detrimental to the social sciences at large. Money has been moving toward the STEM sciences, she said, and this creates a downward spiral for the social sciences.
When there is less money, Khan said, there is less student interest and when there is less student interest, there is less money. Moreover, for students studying global studies and international relations, there will be a hole in their knowledge — a hole the size of the Muslim world.
“Everybody would suffer, it would create a void,” she said, “and who would fill it?”
Khan said the Center for Global Islamic Studies fills a need for the university with college-educated faculty and teaching opportunities, and without it there is the potential that the void left behind will be filled with extremist thinking instead.
Khan told her class about the potential loss of the center and to write to the president if they wanted to do something. She also wrote a letter to the president in support of the center.
“I think the center is very important for general education and removing stereotypes about the Islamic people, fostering a more inclusive community,” said Helen Ard, ‘17, a global studies major who has taken two classes offered through the Center for Global Islamic Studies and attended its lectures and discussions. “Islam is followed by over one billion people around the world. If you lose the center, you’re losing a large part of global studies.”
Ard said she first found her passion for Islamic studies through studying the Arabic language, which she thinks is also being forgotten on Lehigh’s campus.
“I found a lot of passion in learning about it,” she said. “I think it makes me a better person to be better informed.”
Hall said he hopes to see greater enrollment in these types of classes. He said there are only four students enrolled in both the beginner and intermediate Arabic classes for the spring.
Ard feels Lehigh has done a lot to foster programs between colleges, but as a result, programs within the College of Arts and Sciences have gotten left behind.
Rozehnal said he thinks students should make their voices heard by the Lehigh administration if they want the center to stay.
“Students should take ownership of their own education by voicing their interests and demands,” he said. “Talk to other students. Talk to your professors and talk to Lehigh administrators. Let them know why you think the center is valuable.”
Hall said if he can show the administration and donors the demonstrated demand for these classes, he can make a stronger case for their funding.
“Knowledge about Islamic civilization is an essential element of a 21st century liberal arts education,” Rozehnal said. “It’s no longer optional, it’s absolutely critical.”