Arabic at Whitman

Sarah Cornett

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Mandarin, Spanish, English, Hindi, Arabic. These are the five most commonly spoken languages in the world, and Whitman consistently offers courses in three. While Hindi has never been offered at Whitman, Arabic has been offered sporadically in recent years. The current lack of Arabic classes recently gained campus-wide attention when sophomore Annabelle Marcovici created an online petition to prove student interest to the administration.

“I hoped that demonstrating student interest would reignite conversations within the student body and the administration about why we don’t offer Arabic and how we might be able to do so,” said Marcovici. “Offering Arabic would go a long way towards upholding Whitman’s commitment to global perspectives and diversity.”

Though the language was never offered consistently, many students came to Whitman thinking a more consistent program was in place. The Whitman Admission Facebook page touts a picture of an Arabic class taught by Mona Hashish, with the caption “Arabic class at Whitman,” in the “Around Campus” album, and many students entering the college believe an Arabic program has been disbanded.

“I was under the impression that Whitman offered it because I knew of students who had taken it here,” said Marcovici.

Many of Whitman’s counterparts have programs in Arabic, including Carleton College, Macalester College, Occidental College and the Claremont consortium. Arabic holds incredible strategic importance as a language of study in today’s world, and Arabic speakers are in high demand in foreign service professions, a field many Whitman students are interested in pursuing.

“Our world is changing in a way that makes Arabic suddenly incredibly important,” said Professor of Religion Jon Walters, chair of humanities. Because Whitman has never had an official Arabic program, classes were only available if a professor in another department was willing to teach them.

“Arabic was offered on occasions when we could find a visiting professor to teach it,” said Professor John Iverson, current chair of the Department of Foreign Languages and Literature. “There’s never been a program on a regular basis.”

Former religion professor Robert Morrison first taught the language on campus to a small number of interested students until he left the college in 2008. Later, visiting World Literature Fulbright Professor Mona Hashish held beginning Arabic classes during the 2008-2009 academic year. In that same year, the faculty and administration began to seriously consider a regular program.

“In 2008, we started talking about writing a grant to launch Arabic,” said Assistant Professor Elyse Semerdjian, a specialist in the Middle East and Islamic studies. “Soon after that conversation started, the stock market crashed, and we decided it wasn’t a good thing to continue given that Whitman was going to have to freeze hires.”

According to Walters, beginning a program in a new language is a serious investment, costing millions of dollars.

“A new tenure line requires about a $2 million increase in the endowment,” said Walters. Economic concerns have seemed to be the central prohibiting factor in Whitman’s drive for Arabic, though the ongoing Capital Campaign to raise $250 million for the endowment will mean a number of new faculty positions. Faculty members are hoping to expand or create new academic programs, and Arabic could be one of these.

“The current capital campaign is aimed, in part, at creating 12 to 15 new tenure-track positions at Whitman,” said Dean of Faculty Timothy Kaufman-Osborn.

For Walters and similarly-minded faculty and students, the formation of a full Arabic language program at Whitman is looking increasingly probable.

“My suspicion is that Arabic will be among those [programs funded by the campaign],” said Walters. “Nobody is trying to say no [to this]. This is coming.”

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