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The Seeker

Laurie Brand is outspoken, unorthodox — and a leading expert in her field. She’s the new director of the School of International Relations in USC College.

The Seeker

From legislation for border walls and ID cards in the U.S. to riots in Paris, the subject of immigration recently has stirred much public passion and debate in the Americas and Europe. In contrast, little attention has been devoted to emigration from Arab states.

That’s where Laurie Brand comes in.

The new director of USC College’s School of International Relations is breaking new ground with her book, Citizens Abroad: Emigration and the State in the Middle East and North Africa (Cambridge University Press, 2006 ) — a work which is pioneering in its treatment of the role of Middle Eastern states in the processes of emigration within and outside the region.

Brand traces the book’s origin to her surprise at discovering that a number of Middle Eastern states were establishing government ministries charged with managing relations with citizens and their descendants residing beyond their borders. In Citizens Abroad, she looks at state efforts by Morocco, Tunisia, Lebanon and Jordan.

“I became very interested in the question of why, at a particular point in time, a state decides to establish or expand its ties with its nationals abroad,” Brand said.

“This leads to a number of other questions,” she continued. “What implications are there for the content of citizenship when a state has increasing numbers of their citizens or their descendants living abroad? How do states relate to these people? Do they continue to have a claim over them? What does that mean both in legal and moral terms?”

Rather than begin with a particular hypothesis to test, Brand took a more inductive approach, examining her subject and then evaluating the patterns that emerged.

“For most social scientists, it’s not the preferred way of conducting a study,” she said. “There’s always the risk that you may end up gathering a lot of information that ultimately may not figure directly into the study. But that’s the way I’ve always worked, for better or for worse, and I enjoy the kinds of questions I pursue.”

Building on this emigration work, her current projects look into why and how states in the Middle East and North Africa include emigrants in “official” national narratives by examining government history and related textbooks.

While continuing her scholarly work, Brand has taken on a different kind of project — one that she expects will take up a good portion of her time over the next few years. 

In her new role as IR director, her first goal will be to recruit new faculty.

“We have among our faculty some very distinguished people,” Brand said. “And a major in international relations is increasingly attractive to students, so we’ve had a surge in interest over the last few years. For us to continue to be a vibrant and active faculty, we need reinforcements. And we’re excited because we’ve had a number of potential colleagues out for visits.”

She also wants to work with her colleagues to develop more overseas studies opportunities for IR students — something she sees as central to an education in her field.
She also will be working closely with her predecessor, Steve Lamy, and the new director of the Center for International Studies, Patrick James, who recently were awarded a prestigious Luce Foundation grant to develop programs on religion and international relations.

Said Brand, “Questions of the relationship between religion and politics are key not just in the part of the world that I study but clearly in the United States and in other parts of the world. I think examining these issues will be very exciting for faculty and students.”

Raised in Cincinnati, Brand cultivated what has become a lifelong interest in languages that led her to major in French at Georgetown University. Because the program required students to take a second language, she also studied Arabic, as well as Hebrew. 

After a year in Cairo studying Arabic, thanks to a pair of fellowships, Brand enrolled at Columbia University, where she pursued graduate study in international affairs with J.C. Hurewitz, who was then director of Columbia’s Middle East Institute.

Hurewitz convinced Brand to stay on after she received her master’s degree to do doctoral work in comparative politics. Brand’s dissertation examined socio-political institution building in Palestinian diaspora communities in Arab host states, and was later published as Palestinians in the Arab World (Columbia University Press, 1988).

After a stint with the Institute for Palestine Studies in Washington, D.C., she joined the USC College faculty in 1989. While at USC, she’s earned numerous Fulbright awards supporting her research overseas, received a 2002 USC Raubenheimer Outstanding Senior Faculty Award and in 2004 served a term as president of the Middle East Studies Association, a national learned society.

Brand’s antiwar activism and criticisms of the Bush administration’s foreign policy outside of the classroom have created some controversy. Most notably, conservative commentator David Horowitz included her on his list of 100 professors he denounces as the “most dangerous” in the U.S.

Brand offers no apologies for her political activities.

“I reject entirely the suggestion that those of us who criticize U.S. militarism are anti-American,” Brand said. “There’s nothing in my understanding of the Constitution or in civics to suggest that being a loyal citizen means being silent. We have to have a freer exchange of ideas.”

Nor does Brand believe in using the professor’s lectern as a soapbox to push a given agenda upon students. She’s got a different idea of how faculty and students should interact.

“I don’t think indoctrination serves anybody’s purpose, whether it’s indoctrination of center, right or left,” she said. “While all professors have their own points of view, the idea is to get kids to think about issues, to read a variety of points of view and to discuss them in class. A lot of us are really anxious to get students to use and further develop their critical faculties.

“That’s what this is all about, no matter what the course of study — teach them to think for themselves.”