U-M community, Arab and Muslim American studies program bid farewell to longtime professor Evelyn Alsultany

Saturday, December 8, 2018 - 3:01pm

Professor Evelyn Alsultany speaks with students after students, colleagues, and faculty members gather to celebrate Alsultany's scholarship Thursday evening.

Professor Evelyn Alsultany speaks with students after students, colleagues, and faculty members gather to celebrate Alsultany's scholarship Thursday evening. Buy this photo
Hannah Siegel/Daily

Evelyn Alsultany, admired professor, author, advocate, mentor and administrator, will be leaving the roles she has held at the University of Michigan for over 14 years for a new opportunity at the University of Southern California in just a few days.

Alsultany has played a prominent role on campus since her days as a student in the 1990s. Alsultany attended the University as an undergrad, attended Stanford University as a graduate student and returned to the University of Michigan as a faculty member in 2005.

Now an Arthur F. Thurnau professor and an associate professor in the Department of American Culture, Alsultany’s most significant role has been as co-founder and outgoing director of the Arab and Muslim American Studies program. Alsultany has taught courses in the department including “From Harems to Terrorists: Representing the Middle East in Hollywood Cinema,” “Introduction to Arab American Studies,” “Islamophobia” and “Why Do They Hate US?: Perspectives on 9/11”.

Throughout her tenure, Alsultany has been a leader in establishing AMAS — one of only three programs in the country to focus on Arab-American identity — and collaborating with others to create the Islamophobia Working Group — a group of students, faculty and staff dedicated to advising the University administration on how to make campus more inclusive for those affected by Islamophobia and Islamophobic incidents on campus.

Alsultany is also known for her book “Arabs and Muslims in the Media: Race and Representation after 9/11,” published in 2012, and for her work co-editing “Arab and Arab American Feminisms: Gender, Violence, and Belonging” and “Between the Middle East and the Americas: The Cultural Politics of Diaspora.”

At an event celebrating the scholarship of Alsultany last Thursday, several students, colleagues and faculty members spoke about their experiences working with Alsultany. Aside from her academic accolades, the panelists spoke of Alsultany’s work to expand and improve campus prayer rooms, her role in arranging a closed town hall meeting for Middle Eastern, North African and Muslim students following the murder of three Muslim students at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill in February 2015, her advocacy for the ME/NA box to be included on all University forms that require demographic information, and her work in organizing the first Islamophobia speak-out.

June Howard, faculty member in English, American culture and women’s studies, admired Alsultany’s kindness and perseverance with these challenging topics.

“She is a deeply beloved person here at the University of Michigan broadly and certainly in the department of American Culture and AMAS,” Howard said. “Whatever good we do in the future because we will be following in Evelyn’s footsteps.” 

Marjorie Horton, former assistant dean for undergraduate education in LSA, said Alsultany has demonstrated expertise and commitment to diversity, teaching and leadership.

“We all know Evelyn as a professor who is truly exceptional in caliber and impact of her contributions in all domains to our college, the broader campus community and nationally, and most importantly, to our students individually and collectively,” Horton said.

Law student Areeba Jibril said through Alsultany’s course, “From Harems to Terrorists,” she learned the language she needed to address Islamophobia in the classroom and in the community.

“I heard so many good things about (Alsultany’s course), I was going to save it for my senior year and I’m so glad that I didn’t, because finally I found a space where I could walk in and feel seen.”

Later, Alsultany spoke with The Daily about her journey at the University of Michigan, and what she’s looking forward to in her new post.

TMD: Take us through your journey at the University of Michigan. From teaching, mentoring, administrative work, advocacy, diversity work and more — had you imagined it would be this way, and what has been the most rewarding?

The seed was planted when I was an undergraduate student here in the early 1990s and it was planted through the classes that I took in ethnic studies and women’s studies that I found transformative in terms of how I understood my own identity in relation to the social and political world. So, as an Arab American, Muslim American, Latina, I had access to Latino studies classes that were meaningful to me, but in order to learn about Arabs or Muslims, a student — which is common at many universities — would take Middle East studies classes and you’d learn about Arab countries. I took Islam 101, and these are very important classes, but I was looking for something in particular at the time and those classes weren’t filling that thing I was looking for. There seemed to be a gap in terms of understanding the experiences of Arabs and Muslims in the U.S. context and filling that gap is what has shaped my scholarship on the racialization of Arabs and Muslims in the U.S. and it also shaped my teaching and my service work.

I was hired here in 2005, it was 10 years after I graduated and I never imagined that when I left here in 1995 I would become a professor. I never imagined I would become a professor here. I never imagined that I would help to build an Arab and Muslim American studies program. So, I guess my message to undergrads is you really don’t know where your future is going to take you and especially when you’re graduating from here. But I never imagined that I would have this incredible opportunity to bring my dream to fruition and create an Arab and American studies program along other ethnic studies units in the Department of American Culture and also, as I mentioned yesterday [during the celebration event], I didn’t do it alone. Nadine Naber was a professor here. She was hired in 2003. I was hired in 2005. She’s now a professor at the University of Illinois in Chicago and we had a very similar vision and together created what the program is today. We created courses, internship opportunities, programming, we piloted a certificate program that eventually led to the minor, which is now only one of three of its kind that look at Arabs, Middle Easterners and Muslims in the U.S. context, and the other two are U-M Dearborn and San Francisco State. I’ll add that the most rewarding thing has been working with students for whom the classes and minor are meaningful. There’s a synergy that happens between what this minor is trying to do, what the classes are trying to do and then the students who are really looking for that thing. So it’s been rewarding to offer learning opportunities that will help students thrive in the very difficult world that we’re living in, and also an academic home for Arab and Muslim students on campus, and it’s also been very rewarding to work with them on creating a more inclusive campus.

TMD: After all this time — both as a student and now a faculty member — how does it feel to be leaving the University of Michigan?

I’ve been going through a grieving process, and when I first accepted the job at USC, I felt really, really sad. Everyone was congratulating me and I … I just felt this extreme sense of loss. I had accepted this incredible opportunity and I was just feeling sad all the time. And when I tell people that I felt sad, they would say, “Well why don’t you just stay? Just stay. Cancel the acceptance and just stay here.” But the point is that it’s hard to leave a place that’s been so formative to who I am and it’s been a place where I’ve — I didn’t come here an expert, I became an expert in my field, I became the director of a program, I grew into some leadership positions, I developed my teaching. So it’s really hard to leave, especially the program that means so much to me, and my incredible colleagues and students, but I am also proud to leave with the Arab and Muslim American studies program in such a strong position and to have contributed something to this campus that some students find meaningful and who will be able to continue to benefit from it after I leave.

TMD: You’ve been at the University through a number of tumultuous and challenging times, and students, faculty and staff have all cited your strength, your advocacy, your willingness to be a mentor throughout those times, and of course, year-round, too. So what are your primary motivations for this work, specifically in these particularly challenging times?

In the years that I’ve been here, every year, some kind of crisis happens. And I think that’s common at college campuses across the nation that are reflecting the urgent social political issues of our time. Over the years, a student would come to me with an issue and say something like, “We’re advocating for a multicultural lounge. Can you come with us to a meeting with V.P. Harper?” And I say, sure I’ll come to the meeting. Or, students came to me and said, “We’re receiving hate mail because of this American Sniper controversy. We’re having a meeting with President Schlissel — will you come?” Sure, I’ll come with you. “We’re advocating for a ME/NA box — a Middle Eastern/North African identity checkbox, and will you come with us to meet with Rob Sellers or Provost Philbert?” So a lot of the work I’ve done on campus has been through students asking me to accompany them to meetings that they are having. I see myself as an advocate for Arab, Muslim students, ME/NA-identified students, who are often not part of diversity, equity and inclusion conversations. So my motivation has been to help create an environment at the University for marginalized students to thrive and therefore, reach their potential in life.

TMD: How have you seen the University climate change throughout your career here, and with current political and social climate, what are your feelings for the future? Do you feel the University is inching toward where it needs to be to make this an equitable space for students who are marginalized, and what do you see as further spaces for improvement?

I have witnessed that the University is committed to diversity in many ways, and they have been for a long time. When I was an undergrad here, I remember the Race and Ethnicity requirement was new and it was one of their efforts toward creating a more equitable campus and teaching about race. But there’s also … a lot of reasons why things can’t happen or simple things can’t happen quickly or can’t happen at all.

But what I’ve learned in my time here is that administrators are not aware of issues that students, staff or faculty face unless we tell them about it and work on it together. So the Islamophobia Working Group was formed, and it’s been very active in trying to create spaces for ME/NA-identified students and Muslim students on campus, and we’re a group of over 100 faculty, staff and students who strategize on how to do this together.

So, we’ve been working on three areas. One of the areas is increasing the number of reflection spaces on campus to facilitate prayer for Muslim students who pray five times a day so they don’t have to walk all the way across campus to do that, and as a result of the Islamophobia Working Group’s efforts, there are many more reflection spaces on campus. It was actually a fairly easy thing to do.

We’ve also been advocating for a Middle Eastern/North African-identity checkbox and we’ve had many meetings with the administration and it is well underway of happening.

The third thing we’ve been working on over the last two and a half years is changing the Arabic language textbook or modifying it or supplementing it in some way, because students pointed out that it is orientalist and militaristic and Arabic language is not taught in the same way as other languages. … Students have been working on this, raising awareness about it, and their task force in Near-Eastern Studies to figure out how to resolve the issue.

The larger point is that we need to get more involved and inform the administration and work with them to make the kinds of changes that we want to happen on campus.

TMD: Can you talk about your new and exciting position coming up and what you’re most looking forward to?

My new position is in the Department of American Studies and Ethnicity at the University of Southern California, and that department is considered to very comparable to the Department of American Culture at U of M, so I feel very fortunate to be going to a similar kind of structure in the department. I’m hoping to collaborate with colleagues there to create a minor for Arab and Muslim American studies. They don’t have one, but there is a critical mass of faculty there that make it possible, so I am excited about that. I have to say that a lot of what I’m looking forward to is unknown right now. I’ve been here 18 years — 4 years as an undergrad, 14 as a faculty member, and so this next step really represents a new chapter, being challenged in new ways, a new adventure. So I’m looking forward to see where the future takes me. But, since I write about television and film, I’m curious about how or whether the proximity to Hollywood might shape my work in new ways.

TMD: What is a final sentiment you’d like to leave with the University of Michigan, and more specifically, the communities in which you’ve played such a prominent role?

My final sentiment is one of gratitude to all the people that I’ve had the opportunity to collaborate with on making U of M a more inclusive campus and also gratitude to my colleagues for supporting the vision in creating this Arab and Muslim American studies program that’s so unique and necessary given the social and political context that we’re living in today.