Effective September 1, the Department of Near Eastern Studies will be the Department of Middle East Studies. The change recognizes the fact that the public, our students, and many of our colleagues refer to the region we study as the Middle East, meaning the geography from Iran to Morocco, and from Sudan to the Caucasus and the Balkans. ‘Near East’ for a long time was used for the same region, in contradistinction to a Middle East and a Far East, denoting South and East Asia, respectively, but with changing perspectives, Near and Middle East came to mean more or less the same, and today, as a quick Google search will show, Near East is becoming obsolete.
Adjusting to different terminologies and perspectives is nothing new for the department. Carl William Belser, the first to teach the field at UM, had the title Professor of Oriental Languages, which in his case meant Hebrew, Assyrian, and Arabic. Under Leroy Waterman, who led it from 1915 to 1945, it was the Department of Semitics, to be renamed Department of Oriental Languages and Literatures. Under the latter name, it included Chinese and Japanese as well, and it taught history, culture, and religion of all regions in its purview. After Waterman, it was divided into the Department of Near Eastern Studies and the Department of Far Eastern Languages and Literatures, today the Department of Asian Languages and Cultures. Its second ‘founding chair’, George G. Cameron, led it from 1947 to 1969; he laid the foundation for the multidisciplinary community it is today.
Cameron resented a new name, Department of Near Eastern Languages and Cultures, which was imposed by LSA in 1963, because he felt it did not reflect the diversity of disciplines across five millennia, a vast geography, and many cultures and religions the department prided itself of. In fact, the change was reversed a few years later. And here we are today, then, changing the name again. While ‘Near East’ has some currency among archaeologists, the general public has adopted the term Middle East. It is a shorthand, of course, but one that is widely understood. No name is perfect. ‘Middle East' still smacks of Eurocentrism, for instance. But are we ready for ‘Department of West Asian, Southeast European, Caucasian, Iranian, and North African Studies’? Welcome to the Middle East.