Standing room only
When he arrived to teach his first class on "Global Conflict" last week, Mark Juergensmeyer found himself stepping around students who were spilling onto the stairs and stage of his lecture hall - while other hopefuls waited in a line snaking out the door.
It was the sort of raging popularity that professors yearn for. But it was the Sept. 11 terrorist disaster that drew 550 students to the 220-seat hall. "I've never seen this kind of student interest before," says Dr. Juergensmeyer, a sociologist at the University of California at Santa Barbara. "I thought there might be a rise in enrollment. I had no idea how much. You could hear a pin drop."
Early signs of the impact the attacks have had on colleges and universities include professors adapting courses on the fly and student stampedes to relevant courses. As students try to make sense of the tragedy, they are targeting any class that might offer insights - including long-ignored Arabic-language courses, Islamic-religion classes, and Middle Eastern and terrorism studies.
At Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., some students were reportedly shuffling classes during the September "shopping period," angling to get into small seminar-size classes with names like "Thought and Change in the Contemporary Middle East" and "The Future of War."
At other schools, where course selections were already locked in, students are trying to audit such classes, and showing up by the hundreds for open-forum discussions with faculty specialists.
Juergensmeyer likens the phenomenon to Vietnam era teach-ins, "when students showed up just because they wanted to learn." At his Santa Barbara campus, special symposiums are popping up on "Islam and the politics of terror" or "Roots of Islamic militancy."
Likewise, at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C., 700 students showed up last week for an informal evening forum discussing Islam and Pakistan. "I definitely see and feel something very different than I've ever experienced before on campus," says Charles Kimball, an Islamic scholar at Wake Forest.
Just how sustained such interest will be is uncertain. A surge of interest in Middle Eastern studies mostly fizzled after the Gulf War. But Dr. Kimball and others who have labored in these niche disciplines for years sense a longer-term shift this time.
"We've moved to a different level," he says. "This attack was on American soil, and my guess is there will be a lot more interest for years [in Middle East and Islamic studies] on campuses. People are really trying to make sense of a whole variety of images coming at them."
Back at UC Santa Barbara, about 300 students managed to squeeze into Juergensmeyer's lecture, but he was still forced to turn away 250 students - including Megan Marron. But she hasn't yet given up trying to get in.
"This class means a lot to me because my cousin lost a close friend ... and I have been trying to comfort her," Ms. Marron wrote in an e-mail to Juergensmeyer. "I have such an eagerness to learn about the ins and outs of this war and why so many innocent people have to die."
Such emotion and intellectual hunger are part of a larger pattern on the campus. Dwight Reynolds, director of the Center for Middle East Studies there, reports a 20 to 25 percent increase in Arabic-language course enrollments. Religion professor Juan Campo, a specialist in Islamic studies, says his "Islamic Traditions" class doubled from 25 students - the normal limit - to an overflow 50 students last week.
Still, it's difficult to gauge whether career-minded students will have a long-term interest.
The Princeton Review website tells would-be Middle Eastern studies majors that they can expect to earn about $24,000 a year as an anthropologist, antique dealer, or archaeologist.
But demand in the intelligence and diplomatic communities seems likely to drive wages up. The FBI is reportedly paying about $40 an hour to translators. And one observer says the US intelligence agencies probably pay $40,000 to $60,000 or more for top language specialists.
Serious students clamoring for Middle East majors nonetheless may have their work cut out for them finding classes to take. On the Princeton Review site, more than 1,100 schools list Middle East programs. But just 55 institutions also offer Middle Eastern languages and literature.
Only about 50 colleges and universities nationwide have truly comprehensive Middle East studies programs, says Anne Betteridge, executive director of the Middle East Studies Association of North America at the University of Arizona.
She says colleges may soon find themselves in salary battles to lure the best of the long-ignored Middle East faculty.
"On all the campuses I'm aware of, experts on Islam or Mideast studies are holding pubic forums and giving extra lectures," Dr. Betteridge says. "I think we'll see enrollments up in these areas next semester."
In contrast, Islamic studies, though still small overall, has grown enormously in the past decade. It will get a boost of student interest because of the recent tragedy, says Wake Forest's Kimball. His "Intro to Islam" class next semester would normally be limited to 25 students, but will be open to 75. "I think we'll get them - easily," he says.
Perhaps the most neglected of all the disciplines seeing heightened student interest is terrorism studies. Using the term "studies" may even be a misnomer because so few universities offer classes on terrorism.
Perhaps two-dozen institutions offer such classes, says Yonah Alexander, who heads the Inter-University Center for Terrorism Studies at the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies in Arlington, Va. Not pursuing terrorism as a legitimate field of study has been a tragic, short-sighted mistake, he says.
Duke University historian Martin Miller agrees. "I teach about the historical roots of terrorism," he says. "But I couldn't name one other historian in the United States today that's doing this. It's appalling."
Funds are flowing to schools that offer practical counterterrorism training, however. Louisiana State University's academy of counterterrorist education, developed in 1998, expects an increase in federal funding to train firefighters, police, and paramedics to respond to terrorism. About 30 of its graduates were lost Sept. 11. LSU is part of the National Domestic Preparedness consortium, a group of five universities with counterterrorism programs funded by the federal government.
The University of South Florida was awarded $4 million last week by the Department of Defense to fund its center for biological defense.
Yet terrorism's causes and structures have to be analyzed from an intellectual as well as a tactical standpoint, Dr. Alexander argues. For decades, he lectured and gave seminars on campuses across the country with only modest gains for the discipline. Now, he is getting e-mails from a few institutions wanting to know how to start programs.
"People were blind," he says. "They treated terrorism like a nuisance that will go away. Now, after all these years, we needed this terrible tragedy to wake us up. While we in academia slept, the terrorists were planning their next attack. We didn't study this according to our intellectual traditions."
William Moomaw, a professor of international environmental policy at the Fletcher School at Tufts University, says his graduate classes will examine in more detail "environmental security" - patterns of resources and environmental degradation visible from satellites that can be used as potential signs of where political instability, future conflicts, sources of refugees, and terrorism could develop.
"Universities all have been slow on the uptake," Dr. Moomaw agrees. "But this time, I anticipate new courses, one or two by next semester."
At Northeastern University in Boston last week, Irm Haleem polled students in her introductory course on international affairs. Did they want to continue the course's general focus or zero in on terrorism? Terrorism study was voted in by a landslide.
All of which gives Alexander hope - along with a flood of e-mails from one-time students now asking him, "What can we do?" One undergraduate at the University of Wisconsin wrote that she plans to do antiterrorism studies full time. Because of what happened Sept. 11, she wrote, "Now I know my goal."