Prof. Taner Akçam of Clark University
Prof. Taner Akçam

Akçam Appointed to UCLA Armenian Genocide Research Program within Promise Armenian Institute

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WATERTOWN — After a period of expansion, Armenian studies in the United States appeared to have entered a slump or slow period. This seems to be changing again, with the establishment of new academic centers, chairs and programs, especially in California. At the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), the Promise Armenian Institute is playing a supportive role in this movement. Most recently, it announced the creation of the Armenian Genocide Research Program as one of its component parts, with Taner Akçam appointed as its inaugural director.

Akçam will be leaving his position as Kaloosdian Mugar Professor in Modern Armenian History and Genocide at the Strassler Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies of Clark University, in Worcester, Mass., and assuming his new post on May 1 of this year.

Promise Armenian Institute

The Promise Armenian Institute (PAI) was established in late 2019 as part of the UCLA International Institute through a $20-million bequest from the estate of Kirk Kerkorian. Dr. Ann R. Karagozian was appointed as its inaugural director in 2020, and Hasmik Baghdasaryan began working as fulltime deputy director in July of that year. Karagozian, a faculty member at UCLA for almost 40 years, is a distinguished professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering in the UCLA Samueli School of Engineering, but also has held a number of administrative and leadership roles, including as chair of the UCLA Academic Senate and interim vice chancellor for research for the entirety of UCLA. The experience, connections and awareness of university life she acquired as a consequence of these roles is an asset she puts to use in her new position.

Dr. Ann Karagozian

Karagozian explained that while in the past she tended to keep her family and Armenian community life separate to an extent from her professional activity, she had taken the first step to break down this barrier over a decade ago, when she began to serve as a University of California (UC) representative on the board of trustees for the American University of Armenia, which operates under UC auspices. When the PAI position was offered to her, she said, “I felt that this might be exactly the right thing to be doing in this stage in my career, where I could contribute still to my profession but also contribute the experience that I have acquired in leadership at UCLA to the creation of an entity that is designed to be interdisciplinary.”

The PAI brings together a number of seemingly disparate parts. There are the two longstanding chairs of Armenian studies: the Narekatsi Chair in Armenian Studies, established 1969, in the Department of Near Eastern Studies and Languages, with its own Program in Armenian Language and Culture, and the Richard Hovannisian Endowed Chair in Modern Armenian History, established in 1987. There is a research program for Armenian archaeology established in 2012 by Zaruhy Sara Chitjian, together with an archival collection and an Armenian Lab dedicated to Armenian archaeology and early history, and an Armenian Music Program, established in 2013 at the UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music under the auspices of Prof. Movses Pogossian. There are also individual scholars who work on Armenian-related topics, such as sociologist Victor Agadjanian.

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Karagozian noted that there are a number of ethnic Turks and Kurds at UCLA who are very passionate about exploring the history of the Armenian Genocide.

The PAI added an Armenian Studies Center to these existing chairs and programs in 2020. Its inaugural director is Sebouh Aslanian, chairholder of the aforementioned Armenian history position.

Karagozian went on to observe that the PAI is not just involved in the social sciences and the humanities. There are a number of existing programs and centers within the within the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA and the Fielding School of Public Health with ties to Armenia and Armenians. The UCLA Vatche and Tamar Manoukian Division of Digestive Diseases hosts the Familial Mediterranean Fever (FMF) Clinic, researching a disease to which Armenians, along with other Middle Eastern nationalities are prone. The PAI added to all this with separate new funding to create Operation Armenia, an interdisciplinary team providing medical disaster relief and long-term support to Artsakh and Armenia.

One can add to this list a sister institute to the PAI, the Promise Institute for Human Rights at the UCLA School of Law. Founded in 2017 with a focus on human rights and law, it occasionally has held programs pertaining to the Armenian Genocide as well as refugee rights, including those of ethnic Armenians.

In sum, Karagozian said, “When the Promise Armenian Institute was created, it was designed not to be only Armenian studies. It was designed to be an all-encompassing entity, a scholarly entity involving research and teaching, but also interdisciplinary research across our campus, and outreach and connections between the USA and the Republic of Armenia and even Armenian entities in the diaspora.”

Armenian Genocide Research Program

In this far-reaching constellation of activities and structures that comprises the PAI, one thing that was missing was Armenian Genocide research and documentation, but this was already in the works. Karagozian said, “When we decided to establish this research program, we did a full search as per UCLA’s requirements, and Taner [Akçam] was selected to be the inaugural director. This will be an entity that certainly will be related to Armenian studies, and there certainly will be overlapping interests with the Armenian Studies Center, but it is going to be a separate program within the Promise Armenian Institute.”

Akçam declared, “The reason why they make this an administrative position, but not a faculty position, in my understanding, is that this is the easiest way to establish such a position. A faculty position would have to go through different boards, meetings and departments and it would have taken maybe 3-4 years because it is a state university.”

Akçam is leaving his tenured chair at Clark University permanently. He acknowledged that this move is a little risky, as the position must be renewed every year. He said, “There is a risk, but I thought I should take this risk because it is worth it.”

Karagozian was very positive about the program, declaring: “I am confident that the Armenian Genocide program will continue. If it is successful – and I have every reason to believe it will be entirely successful – we are hopeful that it will eventually become an endowed chair associated with this program.”

Akçam stated that his work at UCLA will be academic and primarily research oriented. As inaugural director, he has been asked to develop the program.

He said, “One of my main goals is to train young scholars.” The Armenian Genocide program will have at least one or two post-doctoral positions. In addition, Akçam said that he will be ready to serve as an adviser for doctoral students studying with a concentration in genocide studies in various departments like History Political Science, or Sociology.

Akçam also wants to teach students through coursework and is planning to teach one course per semester. Ideally, he would prepare one advanced course on genocide in general and one course specifically on the Armenian Genocide. He said that he will have to decide which courses he will teach based on the needs of the various departments and Armenian-related programs.

However, he does not want to teach too many courses, he declared, “because the ultimate goal of this program is research, and I would like to develop a systematic genocide research program.” He bewailed the fact that up until now, not a single Armenian Genocide research institute or program in a university setting has been created, while there are around 250 Holocaust and Genocide research institutes and programs in North America.

As part of his plan to develop further his field, he explained that the UCLA Armenian Genocide Research Program would direct funding to needed areas. He said, “Normally, individuals come up with ideas and approach institutions for funding. I will change this to the opposite manner. We will develop a plan of which areas need to be researched and what are the necessities of the field. I will organize this research and find individuals to conduct the necessary projects.”

He gave the example of a serious study of Russian archival materials on the Armenian Genocide as one area he would like to pursue in this manner. He would have to get in touch with scholars in Moscow, study the archival materials, discuss the situation with experts, and develop an idea of what must be done. Then, most likely, he said, he would hire a young scholar for a three- or four-year project, and an edited volume will result from his work.

Akçam exclaimed, “I would love to hear everyone’s suggestions! I can make a list of the areas that must be seriously researched but I am sure that people have other useful ideas.” He added that another aspect of his job as program director will be to raise funding for these kinds of projects.

Finally, as part of his new job, Akçam said he will organize small lectures, workshops, and conferences.

Broader Vision

Akçam said that he needs to work out the vision of the Armenian Genocide Program in the PAI, and sees three layers to it. First, he said, is an understanding of where genocide studies as a general field is going. He said, “In this regard, we have to take part in new debates and tendencies of the field. One such new aspect is to include natural catastrophes and environmental destruction, including global warming, in the field as part of human destructiveness.”

“Secondly,” he stressed, “what I really want to develop is a systematic coordination between the studies of different genocides within the Ottoman Empire in the Middle East. It was the same Ottoman government that exterminated, oppressed, or deported Kurds, Greeks and Assyrians, and we have to incorporate these different mass atrocities within the Armenian Genocide Program. Armenian Genocide studies, more advanced than those of the cases just mentioned, should play a role similar to what Holocaust Studies has played in broader genocide studies – it should lead and help in the development of studies of other genocides.”

Third is the advancement of Armenian Genocide studies itself, he continued. New areas should be explored. Gender studies, he said, is not developed sufficiently, nor post-genocide studies. The role of religion must be further explored.

Continuing Projects

While initiating all of the aforementioned projects, Akçam said that his first priority will be to continue with the work that he already has begun. One example is the transliteration and translation into English of the materials in the collection of Fr. Krikor Guerguerian. Much of the Ottoman language materials are first being transliterated into modern Turkish. Many reports of Armenians surviving the Armenian Genocide and sent to the Armenian Patriarchate of Constantinople were written in difficult handwriting so these must be electronically typed before translation. Akçam said, “Getting Krikor Guerguerian’s materials into English will be a huge contribution to Armenian Genocide research. Nobody could use them before because they were still in their original languages.”

He will continue work on the fate of confiscated or plundered Armenian properties during the early period of the Turkish Republic, an oral history project on the 1938 Dersim Genocide, Ottoman press coverage of the Genocide, and the impact of the Armenian Genocide on the foundation of the Turkish Republic.

Turning Point

Akçam declared that the UCLA program is a historic turning point because until now, Armenian Genocide research had been based on the tenacious work of individuals like Dr. Vahakn Dadrian or Richard Hovannisian, but this is the first time that institutionalization of the field has begun.

Karagozian in turn had nothing but good words about Akçam, describing him as the ideal inaugural director for the program. She stated: “We are very excited about Taner joining us at UCLA. He is truly a world-class historian and one of the world’s leading experts – if not the foremost expert, on the Armenian Genocide and its documentation, so we are very happy he has agreed to continue his research activities here at UCLA.”

Akçam concluded, “This is really a dream job for me, a dream come true. Do you know why? In 1993, I returned to Turkey after 17 years in exile, to establish a center for documentation and research on the last period of the Ottoman Empire. I had the funding for it but the Turkish government got wind of my activities. Bilgi University was ready to house such a documentation and research center, but the Turkish state secret service sent a kind of threatening dossier, a letter with information against me, to the directors of the university, the trustees and the university professors. They got scared and I had to leave Turkey again. So this is now for me the realization of a long-held dream.”

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