UCLA is home to the nation’s oldest graduate Islamic Studies program. It has the only such program available on the West Coast and also boasts one of the largest Islamic Studies library collections in the country, second only to Princeton University’s.
Despite this prestigious history, however, the Islamic Studies program faces a dire situation as an admissions freeze that has been in place since fall of 2008 threatens to cripple the program.
According to Khaled Abou El Fadl, chair of the Islamic Studies program, there are only 12 students left in the program, the majority of whom are on track to complete their doctorate degrees and graduate by the end of spring 2011.
“You can imagine that if the program is closed this year and next year, literally, we’ll end up with maybe two people in the program,” he said.
The Academic Senate recommended the admissions freeze at the end of an external review that took place during the 2007-2008 school year, said Robin Garrell, the immediate past chair of the Academic Senate.
“In general, the Academic Senate will review programs to ensure that there are no problems that impact the quality of student learning,” Garrell said.
The outside review committee, which consisted of UCLA and non-UCLA faculty who were not affiliated with the Academic Senate, investigated student complaints about the management of the program and the availability of resources, Abou El Fadl said.
“The review committee found that students felt that they were not well-taken care of and that they felt the program was not managed well,” he said.
If the admissions suspension is not lifted, the program would still exist, even if there were no longer any students, said Kyle Cunningham, senior administrative analyst for the Academic Senate.
“Before a degree program is discontinued or disestablished, many steps will be taken in advance including review and approval by the (Academic Senate),” Cunningham said. “It doesn’t just happen by virtue of a program being suspended.”
A Facebook group called “Save Islamic Studies at UCLA” aims to bring attention to the situation and includes a petition to support the program. Created Sept. 22, the group has more than 200 members, and 138 people have signed the petition, said Ilona Gerbakher, a fourth-year Middle Eastern and North African Studies student and creator of the Facebook group.
Gerbakher met with Abou El Fadl during the summer to request admission into the program, even though it was closed.
“I turned down full scholarships that I got from every UC that I applied to so I could go to UCLA to join this program,” Gerbakher said. “By coming to UCLA, I basically gave up the college experience because I live at home, I work full time, and I did all that to be here with these professors and these students.”
When her request was denied, Gerbakher took it upon herself to raise awareness about the issue and take steps to get the program reinstated, she said.
Gerbakher is working with the Muslim Student Association to promote the cause.
With the graduate program closed, UCLA has no outlet for those who want to pursue a scholarly study of Islam, said Koutaiba Chihabi, MSA external affairs director and third-year neuroscience student.
As an interdepartmental program run by UCLA’s International Institute, the Islamic Studies program does not fall under a specific department, meaning students within the program face disadvantages including a lack of courses, teaching assistantships and faculty advisers.
All the faculty within the program belong to other academic departments. When the university offered the program the opportunity to hire a full-time Islamic Studies professor, the faculty could not reach a decision, and the spot went unfilled.
Eventually, the university eliminated the position due to budget cuts, Abou El Fadl said.
“If an Islamic Studies student wants an adviser or a TA-ship, we have to go ask for one from a department,” he said.
Often, students within specific departments are given priority access to the department’s courses and teaching assistantships, and any spots in classes or positions that are left over would then be available to Islamic Studies students, Abou El Fadl said.
“If you are not housed in a department, these types of opportunities are not guaranteed to your students,” he added.
The program is taking steps to correct these issues. Over the summer, Abou El Fadl drafted new bylaws, instituting procedures that guarantee that students have access to fellowships and that each student has a faculty adviser as a prerequisite for admission into the program.
“We want to ensure that we admit only students we can take care of and serve well,” Abou El Fadl said. “The plan I hope will take place is that admissions will be reopened immediately.”
Procedural changes will only take the program so far, however, as issues such as a lack of teaching assistant positions can only be addressed if the university decides to dedicate those resources to the Islamic Studies program, Abou El Fadl said.
“It doesn’t behoove (the university) to have this odd situation where for years now, Islamic Studies is just closed,” he said.
“We have an interdisciplinary program where students can truly benefit and work with some of the top names working in Islam today, but it’s just a missed opportunity.”
The Academic Senate plans to revisit the program again this quarter to reevaluate the suspension based on the progress that has been made, Garrell said.
“For any program to continue and thrive, there has to be student interest, faculty commitment and resources,” Garrell said. “All those ingredients have to be there, and if they are, then we can go ahead and make a decision.”