UCLA’s ongoing suspension of admissions to Islamic studies worries students

For two years, admissions to UCLA’s small Islamic studies program have been frozen, pending a reorganization.

Now, students say they fear that the program, among the oldest in the country focused on a scholarly study of Islam, could be shut down.

On Friday, several dozen students rallied to support it, gathering outside a meeting of a faculty panel considering recommendations aimed at ending the admissions suspension. The students, mostly members of the Muslim Student Assn., had walked across campus chanting slogans and carrying signs that read, “Scared of Islam? Learn about it.”

Outside the room where the faculty committee was meeting, several student representatives met briefly with its chairman, Steven Nelson, who tried to reassure them. “What I can say, and I can’t say it strongly enough, is that your program is not going anywhere,” said Nelson, an associate professor of art history.

In 2007, the Islamic studies program was reviewed as part of UCLA’s periodic evaluation of all departments and programs, administrators said. Problems that had been previously identified, including relatively few classes and a lack of advisors and faculty availability, were found to be ongoing, and admissions were suspended until the program could be reorganized.


Friday’s meeting by the graduate council, part of the academic senate, was to come up with a list of recommendations on what needs to be done before admissions can be reopened, said Robin Garrell, the senate’s immediate past chairwoman.

But students are concerned that the ongoing suspension could be an indirect way of eliminating the program by starving it of new students and resources. The suspension comes as other U.S. universities are launching similar programs amid growing interest in the study of Islam.

“This is just the wrong time to take UCLA out of the dynamic process of teaching about Islam,” said Khaled Abou El Fadl, a UCLA law professor and chairman of the Islamic studies program. “I’m baffled because UCLA has such a large Muslim community and has had an Islamic studies program for 60 years and has such a good reputation internationally.”

The review by the academic senate three years ago focused mainly on redoing the administrative structure and the need to commit more resources, Abou El Fadl said. He has written new bylaws but said the program needs more funding.

But UCLA Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost Scott Waugh said he was not aware that money was a problem and said the issue was mainly a matter of academics. “If the senate raises questions about resources or finances, those will certainly be addressed,” he said. “I have not had any request for finances come my way.”

Abou El Fadl said the university administration has made excuses with regard to Islamic studies for years. The students hope that by drawing attention to the situation, they can pressure the university to reopen admissions.

Ilona Gerbakher, a senior majoring in Middle Eastern and North African studies, started a campaign and petition drive to support the program after she found out she could not apply. The online petition has garnered more than 3,000 signatures.

“You can’t fix a program by cutting off funding and cutting off new people,” she said.

In May, 10 students in the program graduated, leaving just a dozen enrolled. Abou El Fadl expects five or six of those to graduate this year. He and other supporters hope a reopening of admissions to the program may be approved by next fall but say that could be unlikely with the program still under review.

“We appreciate that students are concerned and are disappointed by the fact that it’s taking time,” Garrell said. “But I would assure people that we are working on it.”