You have /5 articles left.
Sign up for a free account or log in.

A highly regarded overseas immersion program for advanced speakers of Arabic that had been funded by the American government since 1967 did not win a federal grant this year, casting its long-term future into question.

For many in Arabic and Middle Eastern studies, participation in the yearlong Center for Arabic Study Abroad (CASA) program is a rite of passage. The program, which is run by a consortium of 27 U.S. colleges and universities, largely attracts recent college graduates and graduate students looking to move from advanced to superior level of Arabic language proficiency. It was historically located at the American University of Cairo, and in the early part of the 2000s operated in a second location in Damascus before the events of the Arab Spring and the start of the Syrian civil war put an end to that. This year’s fellows are studying at the Qasid Arabic Institute in Amman, Jordan, due to ongoing safety concerns in Egypt.

Nevenka Korica Sullivan, CASA director and a senior preceptor in Arabic at Harvard University, which administers the program, described the failure of CASA to get federal funding as a shock. “We are very grateful to the Department of Education that we have been funded for 49 years. We kind of took it as a given that we were getting something,” she said.

“I don’t mean we took it for granted in a bad way. It’s just that the program is successful. We knew there would be budget cuts, we expected we would get less money -- but we didn’t expect we would not be funded, especially with the importance of Arabic in mind. We are the only program that really caters to academia. Most of our students are people who need Arabic for their research -- historians, Middle East Studies people, journalists.”

CASA’s federal funding came through the U.S. Department of Education’s internationally focused Fulbright-Hays program, the budget for which has been cut by more than half, from $15.6 to $7.1 million, since fiscal year 2010, according to Miriam Kazanjian, an international relations and governmental relations consultant who tracks these trends on behalf of the professional and scholarly associations and universities that make up the Coalition for International Education. The deep cuts came largely in fiscal year 2011, as part of a last-minute budget deal to avert a government shutdown.

The appropriated budget for the group projects abroad component of the Fulbright-Hays program – in which the CASA program competes – has decreased from about $4.9 million in fiscal year 2011 to about $3.2 million in fiscal year 2016, according to figures on the department's website

“In a very reduced pool of funding, our program didn’t score highly enough to get funding” in the grant competition, said Lauren Montague, the executive director of Harvard’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies. She noted that the CASA program met only one of the department’s “competitive priorities” -- for which proposals are awarded extra points -- outlined in this year’s Fulbright-Hays competition for funding for long-term group projects abroad. Preference was given for applications coming from minority-serving institutions and for programs in which K-12 teachers and administrators make up at least 50 percent of participants -- criteria CASA does not meet -- and for programs that focus on one of 78 listed priority languages, a criterion that CASA did meet. (The full list of eligible priority languages, including Arabic, is included in this Federal Register notice.)

That said, the six institutions that were successful in getting funding didn’t meet all those competitive priority criteria, either. Those institutions and programs that did receive funding for long-term group projects abroad are listed in the table below. An additional 20 institutions received funding through the short-term award program. Many of the winning shorter-term programs are geared explicitly toward K-12 educators and were proposed by colleges that met the competitive criteria in terms of institutional type (for the short-term grants, preference was given to minority-serving institutions, community colleges, first-time grant applicants and state educational agencies).

2016 Award Winners, Fulbright-Hays Long-Term Group Projects Abroad Competition

Institution Program Description Languages Amount Awarded
American Councils for International Education Semester-long advanced language programs in Russia and Tajikistan Persian and Russian $240,840
American Institute of Indian Studies (a coalition of 86 U.S. colleges and universities) Yearlong advanced language programs in India Include Bengali, Hindi, Malayalam, Marathi, Tamil and Urdu $218,232
American Research Institute in Turkey Advanced summer language program in Turkey Turkish $154,905
Cornell University Advanced summer language program in Indonesia Indonesian $87,380
University of Georgia Advanced summer language program in Tanzania Kiswahili $104,977
University of Pennsylvania Eight-week advanced language program in South Africa Zulu $213,666

“The short-term projects seem to more robustly address the new priorities, but all awards appear to be very good,” Kazanjian said after reviewing the winning abstracts. “The competition must have been intense. It's too bad more funding was not available.”

“Our focus is mainly to look for other sources of funding -- and try to navigate these new times,” said Korica Sullivan, the CASA program director.

Korica Sullivan said CASA is drawing down its endowment to cover program expenses this year. “Basically, we’ll have to divest a portion of the endowment to keep the program going, and we can fund one more or two more cohorts at most from that money,” she said.

The CASA program pays for the tuition and travel and living costs of fellows, who pay only a modest program fee ($1,850 for students affiliated with one of the 27 universities in the CASA consortium or $2,500 for all others). The size of the program has shrunk in recent years, from more than 40 fellows in 2011-12 to about 15 this year.

Two supplemental programs, CASA II and CASA III, which are geared toward former CASA fellows and professors, respectively, have been suspended for funding reasons, and the core CASA I program has been shortened in duration. “The program was always a one-year program (from June to May) and this year we had to cut it to nine months (September to May),” Korica Sullivan said. “We were forced to cut the time because of money issues, not because we believe that we can cram the program in nine months.”

The CASA program has trained more than 1,700 advanced Arabic speakers since 1967, according to its website. “Over the years, the best students applied to us, and we could select the best of the best,” Korica Sullivan said. She said the program had about 75 applicants last year, about 50 of whom met the minimum score on the language test to qualify for one of the approximately 15 spots.

“It tells you something about the level of language teaching and teaching here,” Korica Sullivan said. “It has gone up; the government has been investing in getting younger people to learn Arabic. There are grants for high school students.”

“I can tell you maybe 20 years ago it was normal to have a student who would come to CASA and this was their first travel abroad experience. Now almost everyone would have had some kind of experience abroad, so they come at a higher level, and this is what they want for their final push.”

“CASA really was the cornerstone for us for getting academics to a higher level of ability in Arabic, and not just in Arabic in terms of the language skills but everything that went with it,” said Kirk Belnap, a professor of Arabic at Brigham Young University, one of the member institutions in the CASA consortium. “The program allowed people to be in the Arab world, whether that was Egypt, Jordan, Syria. It allowed people to be in the Arab world and to interact with people on the street, intellectuals, politicians, etc.”

Belnap formerly directed the National Middle East Language Resource Center headquartered at Brigham Young, which did not win funding in the 2014 competition to renew its Department of Education Title VI grant. “The real problem is that there’s nobody who’s minding the ship,” Belnap said. “Nobody’s asking the question of what is our national need? What is in the nation’s best interest? There isn’t somebody who’s standing back and saying, ‘Hey, the drop in investment in Arabic language skills correlated precisely with the rise of massive problems in the [Middle East] region.’”

“What is our strategy here?” asked Mahmoud Al-Batal, a professor of Arabic at the University of Texas at Austin and a former long-term director of the CASA program. “Are we happy that we have enough speakers of Arabic at level three in this country to deal with any future strategic issues that we will face? The answer is no.” (Level three is defined by the Interagency Language Roundtable as entailing general professional proficiency.)

“If we are thinking in terms of strategic need that we do have as a country, as the United States, we do have need for highly trained learners of Arabic who reach a superior level of proficiency,” he said. “The fact of the matter is that this is one of the very, very few programs that serve this need. We do have the flagship program [funded by the Department of Defense]. But the flagship program mainly provides the funding for the students who are from the flagship institutions. If we look at Arabic, there are five flagship institutions” -- Indiana University and the Universities of Arizona, Maryland at College Park, Oklahoma and Texas at Austin -- “while the CASA program is open to everyone.”

“CASA is one of the oldest, most established programs offering advanced Arabic language training to scholars working on the Middle East,” said Rosemary G. Feal, the executive director of the Modern Language Association. “CASA is one of the best programs for advanced Arabic language training that was offered in the region with funding to scholars studying the Middle East or Arabic literature and culture. It goes without saying that this cut in funding is a wrong move of enormous proportion, particularly at a time when the number of graduate course enrollments in Arabic language in U.S. institutions is declining” -- down 20.1 percent from 2009 to 2013, according to the MLA's most recent report.

"CASA has been a cornerstone of the field of Middle East Studies for decades, for students of history, literature, anthropology, political science, and many other fields," said Alan Mikhail, a CASA alumnus and a professor and director of undergraduate studies in the history department at Yale University. "There was a time when those entering the field without Arabic essentially *had* to do CASA to learn the language properly. There are other wonderful programs now too, but CASA remains the gold standard. It is a sort of rite of passage in the field. Not only does it serve to advance one's Arabic by leaps and bounds, but the relationships forged in the program and the experiences of a year in the Middle East last forever. Simply put, in a field of thousands, there are hundreds of scholars who would not be -- could not be -- the scholars they are without CASA."

Next Story

More from Global