From the Newsroom to the Classroom: Bakhash Brings His Iranian Roots and Historical Perspective to Teaching

Posted: July 24, 2006 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

Shaul Bakhash
Shaul Bakhash, Iranian-born Robinson Professor of History, is a sought-after expert on Middle East issues.
Photo by Evan Cantwell

At many universities, the most distinguished professors teach only graduate students. But at George Mason, thanks to the vision and generosity of the late Clarence J. Robinson, undergraduates have the opportunity to learn from faculty members who are recruited to George Mason from senior positions at prestigious institutions, including Princeton, Harvard and Yale.

The mission of these educators, the Clarence J. Robinson Professors, is to enrich the academic experiences of undergraduate students while continuing their scholarly pursuits on broad and fundamental intellectual issues.

The first cohort of Robinson Professors arrived after the university started receiving income in 1984 through an historic bequest from Robinson. A leading businessman and civic leader in Northern Virginia, Robinson was prominent among a group of Northern Virginia citizens who sought to establish an institution of higher education in the region.

From 1964 to 1970, he chaired the advisory committee appointed by the governor to oversee the development of George Mason College as a branch campus of the University of Virginia. Later, in preparing his will, Robinson advanced his belief that if his bequest were spent on people rather than bricks and mortar, the effect would be much more profound for the young college.

Currently, there are 12 Robinson Professors. Collectively, the Robinson Professors have received numerous distinguished awards, including Guggenheim fellowships, the Pulitzer Prize and George Foster Peabody Awards. They have published countless academic articles as well as books, plays, films and documentaries.

This is the second in a series of profiles of the Robinson Professors. Paul D’Andrea was previously profiled.

Shaul Bakhash

By Rey C. Banks

Shaul Bakhash
Shaul Bakhash
Photo by Evan Cantwell

A former journalist, Shaul Bakhash witnessed firsthand the tumultuous transformation of his homeland, Iran, through three decades. It is through that lens and experiences that he now closely watches the events currently unfolding in Iran, the Middle East and around the world.

“It is Israel’s hope to cripple Hezbollah in Lebanon,” he remarks. “And the Bush Administration is fully supportive of those efforts.”

These are the types of analyses Bakhash is often called upon to give. Frequently, he fields interview requests from the BBC, the Washington Post and similarly prestigious outlets that vie for his insight and political acumen.

From his position as a Robinson Professor of History at George Mason University, Bakhash brings a unique set of skills to the campus in Fairfax, thousands of miles away from his origins.

Bakhash got his first glimpse of America as a young boy in the 1950’s attending boarding school in upstate New York. From there he continued to Harvard, where he received a BA in 1960. However, there was never a question in his mind that he would return to the country of his birth. Back in Iran, Bakhash embarked upon his career as a journalist, reporting the news despite censorship to a public eager to read and absorb the shifting political winds of pre-revolutionary Iran.

His early years as a journalist coincided with sweeping programs initiated by the government to improve the economic and social conditions of the Iranian people, with land reform as a major priority. Then Bakhash came back to the United States to further his education. When he returned to Iran in 1972, he found a news media choked with restrictions and widespread popular unrest that led to a revolution. This was also a turning point for Bakhash, who again left Iran to accept a yearlong visiting professorship at Princeton University, never to return.

Bakhash soon found himself at Mason at the suggestion of his colleague, Jack Censer, now dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences. Bakhash was invited to take part in a newly formed endowment of world-class academicians known as the Robinson Professors. Intrigued by the academic freedom offered by the Robinson professorship, Bakhash believed his journalism background and expertise in the history of Iran and the Middle East was the perfect marriage of disciplines.

He brings this belief to the classroom, where he hopes his students learn history’s relevance to the present, and more importantly, the importance of other cultures.

Bakhash still dreams of returning to Iran one day but knows the current political situation and his outspokenness in the media may make that impossible. He also acknowledges the world of reporting and journalism has changed since his days as a cub reporter.

“Twenty-four-hour access has turned news into sound-bites,” he laments. “Some of the cable news networks have lost their objectivity and impose their commentary and opinion on the story.” But that doesn’t keep Bakhash from becoming wistful about his days in the newsroom and feeling the tug of his first love, reporting the news.

This fall, Bakhash will teach HIST 460: State and Society in Modern Iran, 1800 to the Present, and HNRS 240: Reading the Past: Political Islam.

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