The study of the Middle East and Islam at New York University has a long and distinguished history which may well have begun with the university's founding in 1831. It is known that by 1837 the faculty included both a professor of Arabic, Syriac, Persian and Ethiopic, and a professor of Hebrew and Oriental languages; courses were offered in Arabic, Persian, biblical and rabbinic Hebrew, Chaldaic and Syriac. The Department of Near Eastern Languages and Literatures (NELL) was established in 1966; the late Professor R. Bayly Winder served as the department's first chair.
In 1973 the department moved into its present quarters at the corner of Washington Square South and Sullivan Street, in the newly-completed building (designed by Philip Johnson) which also houses the Hagop Kevorkian Center for Near Eastern Studies. NELL originally included faculty specializing in Hebrew and Judaic studies, but in 1986 the Skirball Department of Hebrew and Judaic Studies was established as a separate department. For some years NYU's Program in Religious Studies also operated under the aegis of NELL. To better reflect its changing composition and orientation, the department changed its name to Middle Eastern Studies during the 1995-96 academic year. In 2004, in recognition of the developing scholarly range of its faculty, its name was changed once again, to Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies – abbreviated as MEIS.
People at NYU and elsewhere often confuse the Department of Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies with the Hagop Kevorkian Center for Near Eastern Studies. In fact, though they share the same building and collaborate closely, the two are distinct entities.
The Department of Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies is an academic department with its own faculty and offers an undergraduate major (and minor) as well as a graduate program leading to the Ph.D. In contrast, the Kevorkian Center is an area studies center, funded in part by the federal government through the Title VI program, whose mission is to encourage and coordinate teaching and research on the Middle East at NYU and to sponsor educational, informational and outreach programs for teachers, the general public and other people interested in the region. The Kevorkian Center also administers the Program in Near Eastern Studies (NES) leading to the M.A., as well as master's degrees with business, journalism and museum studies. The Kevorkian Center is not a department and has no tenured or tenure-track faculty of its own.