A summer overseas program sponsored by San Diego State on the politically divided Mediterranean island of Cyprus is triggering a debate about academic freedom and the role of higher education in foreign policy.
Greek American organizations want the Cal State system to suspend the program, which last summer enrolled 26 students at a campus in Cyprus' northern, Turkish-run sector to study international conflict resolution.
The protesters contend that the very presence of American classes at Eastern Mediterranean University lends support to the Turkish military's occupation of northern Cyprus.
But professors and students who were involved in the inaugural six-week session last summer are upset by what they see as political meddling in education. The exchange program, its supporters say, visited the Turkish and Greek sides of Cyprus, exploring paths to a peaceful settlement in the long-running conflict there and other world hotspots.
The matter was raised before the Cal State system Board of Trustees last month by Trustee Kyriakos Tsakopoulos, a Northern California businessman and philanthropist from a prominent Greek American family.
The issue is scheduled to be reviewed by a special committee today at the system headquarters in Long Beach, with speakers from the Turkish and Greek communities.
Any final decision must be made by the full board, which does not meet until January. Tsakopoulos, a committee member, could not be reached for comment.
Aris Anagnos, a vice president of the American Hellenic Council of California, said his group would lobby the Legislature if the university doesn't suspend the program.
"We are outraged because it is totally improper for a state university to deal with an illegal puppet government," said Anagnos, a real estate broker and investor in Los Angeles.
Turkey invaded Cyprus in 1974 after a coup by Greek Cypriots seeking the island's union with Greece. Massive displacement of Greek Cypriots followed.
The international community mainly shuns the regime in the Turkish sector.
A United Nations plan for reunification under a loose federal government failed in a 2004 election when Greek Cypriots rejected it, although Turkish Cypriots voted in favor.
The Cyprus division was in the news last week during Pope Benedict XVI's visit to Turkey. The pope, in a reversal, endorsed Turkey's bid to enter the European Union, but the matter is held up by Turkey's continuing disputes with the Republic of Cyprus.
If American students want to study Cyprus, Anagnos said, they should base themselves in territory controlled by the Republic of Cyprus, cross into the northern zone, "look around and then come back."
Having ties to Eastern Mediterranean University violates the Republic of Cyprus' laws and international morality, he said.
His group and others contacted California politicians about the issue.
As a result, U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), state Sen. Richard Alarcon (D-Sun Valley) and others have asked Cal State to review the program.
Meanwhile, faculty and students at San Diego State are defending what they say is a valuable program at a well-regarded institution. There is no better way, they say, to explore foreign affairs than to visit places where history comes alive.
Gary Hirsch, a senior who is president of the International Security and Conflict Resolution Student Society, described his Cyprus summer as "one of my top experiences." A former Marine, Hirsch said that because Cyprus is tense but not violent, a visit there allows you "to address the issue of an actual ongoing conflict without a safety issue."
Alan Sweedler, the campus' assistant vice president for international programs, said the Cyprus program is one of 144 various overseas exchanges, involving 1,400 students, that San Diego State participated in last year. "From our perspective, this is mostly an issue of academic freedom and having specific pressure groups wanting to use the university for their own ends," he said, referring to the Greek Americans' protests.
Sweedler and other university officials cite support from the U.S. State Department's Office of Southern European Affairs. In a recent letter, Deputy Assistant Secretary Matthew J. Bryza confirmed that the U.S. recognizes the Republic of Cyprus and not the "Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus." But he stressed that Washington favors educational and cultural exchanges with the Turkish Cypriot community in the hopes it will lead to reunification and said San Diego State is making "an important contribution."
San Diego State professor Stacey Sinclair, the program's lead organizer, said she is starting to plan a second summer there. The course's "values are not pro-Greece or pro-Turkey. They are pro-student and pro-faculty and pro-free exchange of people and ideas," Sinclair said.
However, Andreas Kyprianides, the honorary consul general in Southern California of the Republic of Cyprus, said the program's supporters are hiding behind claims of academic freedom. "Yes, the education of our young people is very important. But do these very important principles supersede legality and rule of law and supersede human rights?" asked the Cyprus-born Kyprianides, a U.S. citizen who lives in Culver City and is an art dealer.
Engin Ansay, Turkey's consul general in Los Angeles, said he hoped Cal State would maintain the program. The situation on Cyprus "is an old and ongoing political problem. But to bring the matter to the university is totally unfair to the students and the university," he said.
The Cal State trustees' action could affect other programs. Cal State Dominguez Hills is working on an agreement with Eastern Mediterranean for online course sharing and possible exchanges of students.
Another arrangement has brought 17 students from Eastern Mediterranean to Cal State Long Beach over the last two years, officials said.
The debate is similar to one several years ago at Central Connecticut State University.
That school has had a small exchange with Eastern Mediterranean for nearly a dozen years, sending about two students in each direction annually, according to its coordinator, history professor Norton Mezvinsky.
Greek Americans in Connecticut lobbied state government to cut off the courses, but the program continues, he said.
At today's meeting, the special committee will hear the arguments but it will also discuss a less controversial measure requiring that students be informed about potential risks of any overseas program.