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Opening Doors

August 30, 2010

Two unconventional colleges successfully opened their doors last week for their inaugural semesters.

Zaytuna College, in Berkeley. Cal., is the first four-year Muslim college in the United States; it began its semester Tuesday with 15 freshmen. Zaytuna offers a bachelor’s degree in either Islamic law and theology or Arabic language.

The American College of History and Legal Studies, in Salem, N.H. is a completion college that offers only the junior and senior years and teaches only history. Students – who must have had two years of general education at a community college or at a four-year institution -- can choose from four concentrations and receive a B.A. in history and legal studies.

“We’re all very excited – the first three nights of classes have been great for me,” said Michael Chesson, dean of ACHLS and a professor of history.

ACHLS started its first semester with seven students and three faculty members: Chesson teaches a reading-intensive American history course, and two writing professors co-teach another course. Six of the students plan to participate in the college’s “3+3” program, which allows them to combine their B.A. with a J.D. After finishing their junior year at ACHLS, students begin their first year of law school at the Massachusetts School of Law at Andover. Upon successful completion of their first year of law school, they are granted their bachelor’s degree from ACHLS.

“The original plan was to serve as kind of a feeder school for the Massachusetts School of Law, and they have over 3,000 graduates who are practicing law all over New England,” Chesson said. “They were hoping to get at least a few first-year law students who had been more thoroughly vetted than what they were getting from some of the area colleges.” He said he hopes that most students will participate in the 3+3 program, but it is not a requirement.

Though the semester is off to a good start, the largest obstacle facing ACHLS is accreditation, which the college will not be eligible for until it has some graduates. “We’re up and running as far as the state is concerned, but until we get that accreditation we won’t be able to take veterans [if they want federal benefits], and we won’t have access to a lot of the funding that students get,” Chesson said.

He said that after the seven currently enrolled students receive their diplomas in approximately two years, the accreditation process with the New England Association of Schools and Colleges can begin. Chesson anticipates that about 12 to 16 students will enroll next fall, with the numbers rising to 50 or 100 once ACHLS becomes accredited. As the program grows, the college hopes to hire more faculty, particularly more writing faculty and professors who specialize in different areas within American history, Chesson said.

Zaytuna College is also waiting to become accredited, a process that it has already begun but that could take four to eight years to complete, according to the Western Association of Schools and Colleges. In addition to WASC accreditation, the college will also seek recognition from various Islamic institutions.

“We have looked forward to this day for many years, and are very pleased to welcome the first class of incoming freshman [sic] to Zaytuna,” college co-founder Hamza Yusuf said in a statement. “We have long desired to establish an institution that recognizes the importance of shaping Islamic scholars and teachers that fully understand American culture.”

The college currently has five faculty members, including Yusuf, who are all Islamic scholars. Though neither faculty nor students are required to be Muslim, all of this year’s freshmen are. Some classes students can take this fall include Islamic theology, Islamic ethics, or Islamic business and finance law. “The advantage of studying at Zaytuna College over other Islamic Studies programs, is that we at Zaytuna Colleges ‘teach Islam,’ while other Islamic studies programs ‘teach about Islam,’ ” Ali Malik, a spokesman for the college, wrote in an e-mail. “We offer faculty that live the experience of practicing the theory that is taught in the classroom.”

Nonetheless, the college also expects its students to take more standard offerings, such as statistics, linguistics, English composition, or rhetoric, and it will offer more majors and more courses as it expands. "[Zaytuna] will eventually reflect something very similar to what other major liberal arts colleges and universities offer in their programs," Malik wrote. "We intend to offer courses that will cover the humanities and social sciences as well as the other subjects within the liberal arts field."

Despite some wariness on Fox News and elsewhere that the college might serve as an Islamic indoctrination site, the college maintains that it should not worry Americans and that the college’s mission is to “educate and prepare morally committed, professional, intellectual, and spiritual leaders who are grounded in the Islamic scholarly tradition.”

 

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