My theme is MESA and the American university. It is a worthy topic because MESA, and MESA’s membership, occupy distinctive places in the American academy. We are, as academic organizations and academic fields go, relatively small; but our membership constitutes, collectively and often individually, a deep reservoir of knowledge about a part of the world that has become of central importance to our country over the past several decades, and is likely long so to remain. The diverse and detailed understanding we hold about our region of special interest-the Middle East-is, or at least should be, a resource of immense value for those in our country, and beyond, who are also concerned with it-whether they are ordinary citizens, or business leaders, or political leaders and others who shape policy.
MESA exists, of course, in the context of the North American university system. MESA was founded in 1966 by a small group of American academicians-at a meeting in Chicago, no less, that quintessentially American city in which I am so fortunate to live. It offers a unique forum for the unfettered exchange of information and ideas on the Middle East, especially the contemporary and recent Middle East, free of any political or economic or cultural or religious orthodoxies; and it serves as a vehicle for encouraging scholarship on every aspect of the region from the perspective of all disciplines, and for encouraging and sustaining the intellectual development of the scholars who undertake such work. While MESA is autonomous and independent of any particular university, we all realize that it simply could not function effectively in the absence of the hundreds of universities and colleges in which most MESA members serve as faculty, academic staff, or students. Without our university or college paychecks most of us would hardly be able to pursue research on the Middle East. It is, I think, no mere coincidence that MESA was born in the 1960s and grew rapidly in the subsequent three decades, the period when the American university system itself reached perhaps its apogee in size and sophistication. MESA can be seen in some sense as a reflection of that period of educational flourishing.