Atshan moved to tenure track position

This semester, Sa’ed Atshan ’06 joined the peace and conflict studies program as a full time tenure track faculty member. Atshan joined the program in the fall of 2015 as a visiting professor. After three semesters of teaching several well-received courses and coordinating community events, Atshan was offered the first tenure track position in the peace and conflict studies program in its 25 years of existence.
In addition to being a Swarthmore alumnus, Atshan holds a MPP, M.A., and Ph.D. from Harvard University and was a postdoctoral fellow at Brown University prior to accepting his visiting professorship. His position as a visiting professor was supposed to last three years. However, as he finished out his third semester of teaching, his move to tenure track position was approved.
“I was thrilled. I’m a Swarthmore alum, so there’s something really special about going full circle. [Swarthmore] has given so much to me and it’s such an honor to be able to give back to Swarthmore. But also I feel like I’m the luckiest person on the planet to be a professor of peace and conflict studies at such a historic program working on the most pressing issues of our time. I can’t think of a better, more fulfilling place to be,” said Atshan.
Peace and conflict studies has a long history at the college, although it took many years in significant effort for the program to reach its current form. The college offered the first known higher education peace studies course, a class in “Elements of International Law with special attention to the important subjects of Peace and Arbitration” in 1888. Just over 100 years later, in 1991, the peace and conflict studies program began. The program has been bolstered by the independent founding of several notable resources for the scholarly study of peace on campus, namely the Peace Collection and the Friends Historical Library. Ellen Ross, professor of religion and coordinator of the peace and conflict studies program, explained that there are many factors that have facilitated the development of the peace and conflict studies program.
We’ve got just phenomenal students, committed to peace and conflict studies. We’ve got a great program, we’ve got this wonderful history at Swarthmore College. We have our Peace Collection here, which is just an extraordinary resource for a small liberal arts college, so we really feel this is the school to have a strong and robust peace and conflict studies program,” said Ross.
The development of the program was spurred on by the hiring of Lee Smithey, associate professor of sociology, for a position with a three fifths distribution between peace and conflict studies and sociology. He is also a past coordinator of the program.
“Lee Smithey has done an incredible job of building this program over the years. The work that Lee does is often behind the scenes … We have quite a number of faculty who are in different departments who teach in the program but it was really Lee who was coordinating and organizing and building the program,” said Ross.
As the program began to grow, the peace and conflict studies program began to seek a tenure line, which would allow them to hire a full time tenure track member.
“The Peace and Conflict Studies Program has sought a tenure line for the program for several years.  The process for adding tenure lines to departments and programs involves a proposal to the Council on Educational Policy (CEP), which weighs all the proposals from all departments and programs against the available positions.  In the past, the proposal from Peace and Conflict Studies has been one of the highest rated proposals that has not received a position,” said Provost Tom Stephenson.
“Since about 2012, we’ve been putting in an application every year to try to get this [tenure] line and what we did get was a three year position,” said Ross.
After Atshan was hired for the three year visiting professor position, he kept up the momentum of the program with a popular series of new courses, guest lectures, and film screenings. For two years now, he has offered an Israel/Palestine course which includes a 10-day trip to Israel Palestine as well as an Israel/Palestine film series open to the public. His courses and community events have impacted the lives of many at the college.
“I can speak personally to the fact that Professor Atshan’s courses can change the trajectories of his student’s lives. It was chiefly due to him that I pursued peace and conflict studies, which is now my declared major. His instruction inspires countless students, and his contribution to the intellectual discourse on campus and the growth of his students’ academic lives is enormous. He also acts as a mentor and role model for countless people on this campus, constantly providing time and support to his students in and out of the classroom,” said Isabel Cristo ’18.
Ross also spoke very highly of Atshan, noting that he was not only inspiring to students, but was influential to many members of the college community.
“He is himself, just a remarkable, interesting, charismatic, and visionary person, who understands education and understands people in a very deep way. I’ve been at Swarthmore for a very long time and I just have a lot of students come in inspired by Sa’ed, inspired to go off and do things they never would have imagined they would have done, intellectual ideas, cross lines of division that they never would have crossed. Part of what Sa’ed brings is just extraordinary abilities to understand people, to work with people, and to invite them to know their deepest selves and to be willing to embark on new adventures,” said Ross.
“I came in last year and I had a vision for the study trip, I had a vision for an honors seminar that I wanted to teach on humanitarianism, I had all kinds of guest speakers that I wanted to invite to campus and I just started right away,” said Atshan.
Atshan’s Israel/Palestine study trip was an experience cited by his students as particularly transformative. A significant component of his Israel/Palestine class is the idea of “radical humanization,” which students are able to learn experientially during the study trip.
“For us to visit a village, a settlement, now a city, that borders Gaza and to go to a children’s playground that has a bomb shelter because they’re afraid their children are going to get killed, you can’t not humanize; you can’t not feel for parents worrying for their children. Of course, in the back of your mind you think, ‘Ok, did the Gaza children have this? Do they have these playgrounds in general? Do they have anywhere to protect themselves? What do they have?’” said Nevien Swailmyeen ’20, who took Atshan’s class this past semester.
Swailmyeen described how the films, guest speakers, and classroom debates, in which students embodied specific and conflicting Israeli or Palestinian groups, offered a lot of new perspectives and encouraged her seek a deep, empathic understanding of them. The study-trip particularly challenged her preconceptions as a Palestinian and motivated her to embrace radical humanization.
“Of course, that hits the back of your mind, but you can’t deny the fact that there are people dying, and when you meet an Israeli family that’s lost somebody to the conflict, when you meet a Palestinian family that’s lost somebody to the conflict, you realize that there’s so much loss happening that those parallels can’t be denied. Again, this clear-cut idea of an oppressed and an oppressor isn’t as clear-cut as it used it be. In my mind, it wasn’t,” she continued.
Despite the outpouring of praise that resulted from Atshan’s first year at the college, the peace and conflict studies program’s appeal for a tenure track position was denied last spring. This was not well received by many students and faculty. Several students, Cristo among them, organized a petition to reverse this decision.
A group of students, including myself, felt that Professor Atshan’s contributions to the campus called for the chance to achieve a lasting position at the college. We collaborated on a petition calling on President Smith to reconsider the decision to deny the peace and conflict studies program a tenure track position, and over the course of a few days, were able to garner over 200 student signatures on the petition. Immediately after presenting the petition, we were told that there was no chance of reversing the decision,” said Cristo.
Despite the position being rejected, CEP was receptive to the criticism they received and took it into account when considering applications in the fall.
Last spring, when we (CEP) announced our recommended tenure line allocations, there was widespread discomfort expressed by faculty that we had not allocated any positions to interdisciplinary programs.  So, when the fall semester opened, and the peace and conflict studies program asked us to expedite a request to allocate a position to the program and to specifically target the position to retain Professor Atshan, it was a win-win.  We could address what many saw as a deficiency in our allocations last spring, strengthen an interdisciplinary program that was in need of more staffing, and retain a dynamic teacher and established scholar,” said Stephenson.
Atshan’s move to a tenure track position will assure the continued availability of his courses,  continuity in support for his advisees within the program, and undoubtedly the continued availability of community events concerned with peace and / or Palestine. The stability of his new position will also provide a measure of comfort to Atshan.
When you’re a visiting professor, other institutions will reach out to you and invite you to apply for particular positions. So, now, that’s it, Swarthmore put a ring on it, so to speak. That really allows me to settle here, and what I’m most excited about now is my research trajectory. I have a lot of research projects that I want to carry out over the next five years, so this allows to really focus on that,” said Atshan.
Atshan’s current research includes two separate projects concerned with different aspects of Palestine, and his future research may include much more.
“I have one big book project, which is under contract with Stanford University Press, and that manuscript is on the politics of humanitarian aid provision in Palestine, and then I have a second major project, which is now well underway, and that’s on the LGBTQ Palestinian movement. There are some exciting projects I’m looking forward to as well moving beyond Israel / Palestine. I still have a deep interest in that, but am also planning on expanding my horizons a little bit,” said Atshan.
Atshan’s new position is not only a first for the peace and conflict studies program but for all interdisciplinary studies at Swarthmore. This new precedent suggests the possibility of other interdisciplinary programs receiving tenure lines in the future.
“A couple years ago, the faculty decided that we should be creating positions in interdisciplinary programs, and so I think that this is a really exciting moment for interdisciplinary programs. I hope that we’ll see growth with environmental studies and other really valuable programs on campus, ” said Atshan.
Ross also expressed support for interdisciplinary programs. She noted that not only were enrollments and majors in peace and conflict studies increasing, but there was growing interest in interdisciplinary programs in general.
“The place of programs is growing. [Because] there’s a lot of attention and faculty, students are committed to growing the interdisciplinary programs,” said Ross.
Right now, CEP has before it proposals from three other programs for tenure lines.  Whether we will be able to prioritize those this year, or in a future year, is not yet clear.  But President Smith has said that she places a high value on interdisciplinary learning, so I think that it is just a question of time before we see a growth in support for interdisciplinary programs,” said Stephenson.
While the exact future of interdisciplinary programs is still uncertain, it is clear that the general momentum is toward larger and stronger interdisciplinary programs.

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