Harvard University opens research office in Tunis

Sunday 29/01/2017
Founder of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies, Tunis, Hazem Ben-Gacem (R), Administrative Dean for International Affairs in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Margot N.Gill (C) and Director of the Centre of Middle Eastern Studies Professor William Granar

Tunis - Harvard University’s Center for Middle East­ern Studies (CMES) has opened its first interna­tional research office in Tunisia.
The office, which aims to serve as “a base for in-depth research and academic programming in the Middle East and North Africa”, was financed by Tunisian businessman and Harvard alumnus Hazem Ben- Gacem, who said he hoped to see the number of Harvard students in Tunisia reach 100 in the coming years.
The move by one of the United States’ top-ranked universities is likely to draw elite academics from around the world to Tunisia and provide unique educational oppor­tunities for Harvard and Tunisian scholars.
“From the beginning, the hope has been to establish an outpost where Harvard faculty and students would come to discover Tunisia — its history, language, culture, art and people — and integrate this ex­perience into their scholarship and education,” said Ben-Gacem to the Harvard Gazette, the official web­site of Harvard University. “I’m very excited by this first step towards a substantial Harvard presence in Tu­nisia.”
The university’s website said the office, inaugurated January 17th, plans to facilitate research, host seminars, conferences and work­shops and provide “assistance to Tunisian students pursuing stud­ies at Harvard University and else­where”.
With CMES launching several programmes in connection with the Tunis office, the move has been met with enthusiasm by Harvard stu­dents and Tunisian academics.
“Shared values of promoting free­dom and the rule of law, together with Tunisia’s long history, rich civilisation, and its exceptionalism, that has made our country the natu­ral choice for Harvard CMES,” Khalil Amiri, co-founder and secretary-general of the Arab Governance In­stitute (AGI) and dean of the Medi­terranean Institute of Technology in Tunis, wrote on Facebook.
“Tunisia welcomes Harvard, and thanks, everyone behind this pro­ject, led by Hazem Ben-Gacem,” wrote Amiri, who attended the opening ceremony for Harvard’s of­fice.
Harvard’s office is challenging other academic institutions to step up their engagement with Tunisia.
Columbia University, said to be in the process of expanding its pres­ence in the country, is offering a 3-week summer programme based in Tunis this year. The programme, which groups Columbia partici­pants with other students in the region, focuses on democratic tran­sitions and constitutional engineer­ing in the Middle East.
Last year, business and engineer­ing professors from Columbia Uni­versity and Tunisia participated in academic exchange trips related to entrepreneurial education.
Often described as a bridge be­tween Africa, Europe, and the Mid­dle East, Tunisia is well situated to function as a hub for academ­ics and researchers. The country’s unique post-revolutionary trajec­tory, as well as its relationship to Africa and the Middle East, attracts a wide range of scholarly inter­ests, including Arabic language, Islamic studies and democracy and economic development.
Harvard’s presence in Tunisia promises to foster foreign interest in the country, one of the main goals of November’s international invest­ment conference, Tunisia 2020.
Ben-Gacem was also a major par­ticipant in Tunisia 2020. Appointed as co-commissioner of the confer­ence by Tunisian Prime Minister Youssef Chahed, Ben-Gacem was responsible for communicating with various shareholders and man­aging funding of national projects.
From the Tunisian town of Béni Khalled, Ben-Gacem graduated from Harvard in 1992 with a degree in economics. He works as manag­ing director of corporate invest­ments for the European division of Investcorp, a Bahrain-based private equity firm.
Ben-Gacem said Harvard’s pres­ence in Tunisia represents an op­portunity for Harvard and Tunisian students to engage with new ideas and advance in their career fields.
For CMES, which has a 6-decade history of pursuing research and teaching “about the Middle East based on literacy in its languages and a deep understanding of its diverse politics, culture, and his­tories,” the Tunis office reflects the university’s desire to be “more in­tentionally global”.
“The Middle East is a part of the world that you’ll never fully un­derstand unless you get your feet on the ground and experience it first-hand,” said William Granara, CMES director and professor of Ara­bic. “Thanks to Hazem’s generos­ity, Harvard students and scholars have greater resources to pursue in-depth field research and can more substantively engage in language and cultural immersion experienc­es.”
Among the programmes avail­able at Harvard’s Tunis location are funding for Harvard sabbati­cal research, an Arabic language programme for Harvard graduate and undergraduate students and a 3-week winter session course for Harvard students.