Faculty Letter to Save Arabic Language Program at Oberlin College

Arabic Studies Committee, the Middle East and North Africa Studies Program, and other language programs have read the statements of Acting Dean David Kamitsuka published in the Review last week (“Arabic Courses to Be Offered Digitally,” March 8, 2019). This letter responds to those statements. Additionally, it responds to other written correspondence between the Dean’s Office and faculty and students that occurred outside the above-mentioned article.

1. The acting dean stated that Arabic “enrollment levels have not been sustainable … in the last eight semesters of intermediate Arabic, course enrollment averaged four students per class.” As a matter of fact, between 2009 and 2019, Arabic language courses sustained an average of 53.2 students per academic year.

2. Arabic language courses have been continuously and uninterruptedly offered at Oberlin College for the past 13 years. Due to high student pressure and demand, Arabic courses were introduced to Oberlin in 2006.

3. Throughout these 13 years, all previous deans hired either one or two Arabic language instructors per academic year, along with occasional TAs.

4. To be specific, between 2009 and 2019, Arabic courses enrollments were as follows: 37 students in 2009–2010; 61 in 2010–2011; 85 in 2011–2012 (with two instructors and two courses on Arab culture); 82 in 2012–2013 (with two instructors and two courses on Arab culture); 49 in 2013–2014; 26 in 2014–2015 (only one course offered); 39 in 2015–2016; 74 in 2016–2017 (with two instructors); 42 in 2017–2018; 37 in 2018–2019. These figures are accessible online at Banner Self Service.

5. The current Acting Dean’s decision to terminate Arabic language courses taught on campus is a major academic decision, and we believe he should have consulted with faculty governance institutions such as CFC and EPPC in making it. However, the decision was taken unilaterally without any discussion within EPPC or CFC. Furthermore, this decision happens at an odd time prior to the completion of the full AAPR process.

6. Dr. al-Raba’a’s existing position is “funded by a four-year external grant,” according to a Dean’s Office email to a student. This grant started in fall 2016 and should end in spring 2020. Although the term of the grant is due to end next academic year, the contract of Dr. al-Raba’a has not been renewed — even though the grant provides funding for another year. The fate of the rest of the grant money is unknown.

7. Language programs in general at the College are unfortunately facing various degrees of cuts, but they will all survive and continue to exist. Arabic is the only program that is being fully terminated and its instructors and TAs have both been eliminated. Classes at all levels will be removed from the curricula taught on campus.

8. Peer colleges, such as Swarthmore College, Wesleyan College, Smith College, Wellesley College, Reed College, Middlebury College, Williams College, Bryn Mawr College, Grinnell College, and even Kenyon College and Denison University in Ohio, all have permanent Arabic positions. If Oberlin would like to survive the crisis facing liberal arts education, compete with its peer institutions over prospective students, and overcome problems of retention, it should empower its foreign languages instead of cutting them.

9. Oberlin is among the liberal arts colleges with the highest tuition rates in the country. Although online courses might have their own merits, the parents of our students do not pay such a high cost of education in order for the students to receive remote learning in virtual classrooms. Among the distinctive qualities of Oberlin and liberal arts education in general are the close relationships between students and professors in a small classroom environment and high accessibility of professors through office hours and email. Student experiences with online Arabic courses last year cited technologically ill-equipped rooms with recorded technical difficulties that severely hindered effective education.

10. Some students and faculty were informed by various administrators that the reason for the termination is that the MENA program didn’t submit a position request to renew Arabic. In fact, MENA is a powerless committee that doesn’t have an allocated budget, is not given authority to hire faculty of its own, and is denied basic resources to organize minor or substantial activities for its students. The last time MENA hired a lecturer was in 2010, and existing MENA professors were hired by their academic departments. As a result, Arabic instructors have been directly hired through arrangements made by the Dean’s Office. The MENA committee’s acting chair last fall was an associate dean, and the Arabic Studies committee’s chair is another associate dean. Both chairs/associate deans never notified members of either committee this year about submitting a position request to continue Arabic.

11. Within the past three years, students who studied Arabic with Dr. al-Raba’a took semesters abroad at Middle Eastern universities, won admission into prestigious graduate schools, and enjoyed access to competitive internships and job opportunities in and outside the country. For example, this semester alone, four students are currently studying abroad at the American University of Beirut, Lebanon. One recent alumna was hired as a full-time staff member with the United Nations in Beirut. When she applied to graduate programs in Middle Eastern Studies, she was awarded a Department of Education-funded Foreign Language and Area Studies fellowship, granting her two years of tuition remission and a $30,000 per year stipend to study at NYU; she also received a full merit scholarship from Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service and additional scholarship offers from the Universities of Chicago and Oxford. Another student published an article that relied on Arabic data analysis in the Journal of Undergraduate International Studies, and he is currently living and working in Jordan and has reached the second round in competing for a Fulbright to conduct research in Jordan next year. Yet another student relied on his Arabic to join Jordan’s symphony orchestra upon graduation.

12. Already intense demand for Arabic would only increase if the Arabic program gained stability at Oberlin with a position that students can continuously rely on for instruction as they make the commitment to learning an important but difficult language.

Finally, we the undersigned faculty of Oberlin College ask the acting dean to reverse the decision to not renew the teaching contract of Visiting Assistant Professor of Arabic Basem al-Raba’a. Oberlin College must maintain its strong history and tradition of including Arabic in its language curricula.

On the online version of this article, there is a link to a student petition asking Oberlin to keep the on-campus Arabic program. As of 3/14/19, the petition has 839 signatures. We hope to get a minimum of 1,500 signatures in order for the petition to be taken seriously by administrators. Click here to access the petition.

Arabic Studies Committee
MENA Program and Languages Faculty

Zeinab Abul-Magd
Associate Professor of MENA History

Matthew Senior
Chair, Departments of French and Italian

Basem al-Raba’a
Visiting Assistant Professor of Arabic

Sarah El-Kazaz
Assistant Professor of MENA Politics

Farshid Emami
Assistant Professor of MENA Art History

Jaleh Jalili
Visiting Assistant Professor of Sociology

Amanda al-Raba’a
Visiting Instructor of Comparative Literature

Ann Sherif
Professor of Japanese

Leonard Smith
Frederick B Artz Professor of History

Anu Needham
Professor of English, member of OCLC

Kévin Rocheron
Faculty-in-Residence, French

Gabriel Cooper
Assistant Professor of German

David E. Kelley
Associate Professor of History, East Asian Studies