March 21, 2010

Center for Middle Eastern Studies director fired

The Center for Middle Eastern Studies' (CMES) associate director was fired last Friday, sparking fear for some students and professors that the center may be shut down.

Rusty Rook (M.A. '96), who had worked for over a decade at the center, was two weeks away from applying for the $600,000 federal grant that historically provides much of CMES' funding. The timing of Rook's dismissal threatens the center's survival, professors said.

“[Rook] is the most centrally involved person in putting the grant together," former CMES director John Woods said. "If we have no grant, there will be no Center for Middle Eastern Studies.”

CMES is one of the nation's top Middle Eastern studies programs. It coordinates events and resources for Middle Eastern-related work in any department, and has about 50 masters students of its own.

According to an e-mail sent by CMES Project Assistant Traci Lombre to CMES faculty and students, the University terminated Rook for "insubordination." Rook, CMES director Fred Donner, Dean of the Humanities Martha Roth and Dean of the Social Sciences John Mark Hansen declined to comment on why Rook was fired, citing confidentiality restrictions. Roth and Hansen's divisions oversee CMES.

Because of Rook's role in preparing the grant, his termination was seen by many as a signal that the University may no longer support CMES' mission or that administrators may want more control over how the center spends its funds.

"What are the admin's plans? Are they out to get the Center? Many students have voiced concern about this possibility. We'll have to read the tea leaves," Donner said. "We've gotten mixed signals from the administration. The firing of Rusty is certainly a negative signal."

Both Roth and Hansen denied there were any plans to close the center: Hansen called the center "a point of pride" for the University and Roth said the grant proposal would be submitted on time.

"The Dean's offices support the center in tangible monetary ways. Just this year, we hired professor Paul Walker to provide dedicated academic leadership in the center. We are working right now to provide temporary assistance [to replace Rook] for the center. What else can I possibly say that can indicate positive steps?" Roth said.

But Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations professor A. Holly Shissler said the administration has a history of underfunding and undervaluing the center. Shissler resigned as CMES director in 2009 because of disagreements with Roth over how much oversight the deans had over the center's staff and financial decisions.

"I find the position of the administration confusing," Shissler said. "Publicly, deans have expressed commitments to the center, but in private, they've asked to talk about what would really happen if the center closed. They've said it doesn't do that much."

Walker's appointment and other financial measures Roth pointed to were welcome steps for the center, Shissler said, but were only made after faculty protested and Shissler threatened to resign. "It wasn't easy to get them to agree to those measures," she said.

Although Rook’s firing came as a surprise, dozens of CMES students showed up to support Rook as he was escorted out of his office last Saturday. “Rusty leaving will mean a lot more closed doors, faceless interactions, fewer opportunities, and pain for all of us in the program,” CMES graduate student Kate Bertash said.

- Additional reporting by Michael Lipkin