The MESA Global Academy Connects Displaced Middle East Scholars in a Time of Crisis

August 5, 2021

The new joint initiative of the CUNY Graduate Center and the Middle East Studies Association, supported by Carnegie Corporation, offers an intellectual home for scholars from the Middle East and North Africa.

MESA Global Academy Scholars from 2020-2021 and Global Academy committee members at an online gathering (Credit: MESA Global Academy)
MESA Global Academy Scholars from 2020-2021 and Global Academy committee members at an online gathering (Credit: MESA Global Academy)

By Mimi Kirk

The Middle East studies community is experiencing a rupture on both sides of the Atlantic. For scholars in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, the challenges of war, authoritarianism, and human rights abuses have disrupted career paths. For scholars and students based in North America, opportunities to travel to some areas for field and archival research have become untenable and ties to academic communities are imperiled. These circumstances have given rise to an innovative initiative to rethink academic solidarity and scholar mobility in a time of crisis: the MESA Global Academy, in partnership with the CUNY Graduate Center.

A number of vital organizations, including the Scholar Rescue Fund and the Scholars at Risk network and, more recently, the New University in Exile Consortium, secure positions for displaced academics at North American universities. Essential as they are, these placements are often only the beginning of a journey to rebuild a disrupted academic career. Scholars often struggle with isolation and the aftereffects of trauma even after they arrive at host institutions. These difficulties are compounded by the challenges of short-term, precarious employment in a non-native language and in an intellectual community not yet familiar with their work. 

This is where the MESA Global Academy comes in. With generous funding from Carnegie Corporation of New York, CUNY has joined forces with the Middle East Studies Association (MESA) — the largest international network of scholars specialized in the study of the region— to launch the Global Academy to integrate displaced scholars in the intellectual communities that comprise the field of Middle East studies in North America. The goal is to enable participating scholars to rebuild their professional networks and reconfigure their academic trajectories toward sustainable, permanent careers in a new context.

Global Academy scholarships are highly competitive, as they recognize excellence in the research and publication records of academics who happen to be displaced. Once selected, the scholars join interdisciplinary collaborations in the social sciences and humanities at U.S. universities. Activities include everything from paper workshops to full-fledged conferences, in addition to professional development events and a variety of publication opportunities ranging from scholarly articles in peer-reviewed journals to policy briefs, blog posts, and podcasts. Across these different modalities, Global Academy Scholars engage in knowledge production that enriches the field of Middle East studies.

The project just completed its pilot year, and due to COVID-19 found itself operating virtually. The Global Academy pivoted from initial plans for in-person events and research collaborations to a broad variety of online offerings. While such experiences cannot replicate some of the intangible benefits of in-person exchanges, they gave larger and wider audiences an opportunity to benefit from cutting-edge research presentations while affording the scholars additional research funding given unexpected savings on travel and accommodation. The scholars also took advantage of numerous publication opportunities, producing innovative scholarship that has begun to appear in online venues and in peer-reviewed print publications.

The first cohort of Global Academy Scholars have expressed excitement at the research platform and visibility they gained as well as the sense of having joined new intellectual communities through MESA, CUNY, and other U.S. university partners in the project. "I cannot express how grateful I am for all the academic opportunities, but also for the support and friendship from the [Global Academy] team, which means a lot, especially when you're alone in the host country," one scholar wrote. Said another, "The feeling of being seen and supported, to know that there are people [in our field of study] who are willing and trying to help us, was really nice." 

MESA Global Academy's pilot year has reimagined scholar mobility in the midst of political crisis and a global pandemic. The CUNY Graduate Center's continuing support for this pioneering partnership is a testament to what can be achieved even in the most challenging times; sustaining knowledge production and embodying an ethic of academic solidarity yield a powerful and positive experience made possible by our faculty's hard work and engagement.

Mimi Kirk is the program manager for the MESA Global Academy.