Open Letter of Response to the Closure of Edward Said Search at CSU, Fresno

By Professor Vida Samiian and Professor Joe Parks

August 28, 2017

On April 26th Fresno State abruptly closed the Edward Said search in Middle East Studies (MES). The Administration claimed procedural violations in the search. This claim was made after the search committee had completed all aspects of the search and submitted a rank ordered list of four candidates, all of Palestinian or Arab American ethnicities. The cancellation of the search generated an overwhelming response by academics at the national and international levels. Numerous letters of objection from scholars in Middle East Studies and petitions with over 2500 signatures called into question the action of the administration, asking the university president, Joseph Castro, to reopen and complete the search.

Vida Samiian, one of the authors, who served as Director of the MES program, resigned in objection to this discriminatory closure. In her public letter of resignation, she documented a campaign of pressure on search committee members by Zionist and Israeli state supporters. This campaign began after the list of finalists was announced. These pressures along with the names of the individuals pressuring search committee members were reported to the administration.

For the benefit of those who have only heard the administration’s justification, we provide a brief history of the search and the MES program. The MES program is an interdisciplinary program with its own faculty and its own curriculum. The faculty and courses are housed in ten different departments in the colleges of Arts & Humanities (A&H), the Social Sciences, and in the School of Business. This group of faculty developed the program through a grant from the US Department of Education. The MES program was initially under the College of A&H but later placed in the Department of Philosophy, as a pro-forma placement, as it was independent from the latter in terms of program, curriculum and faculty. In 2015 an endowment to support the MES program and create a dedicated position for the MES program was established in the College of A&H. The search for this dedicated faculty position was requested by the director of the MES program, through the dean of Arts and Humanities, and approved by the Provost in Fall 2015. The search committee was formed with the participation of the MES faculty and approved by the College dean and Vice President for Academic Affairs according to the norms for interdisciplinary programs. All levels of administration were aware of the composition of the search committee and approved the search committee. The search committee developed the position description for a named Edward Said Professorship in Middle East Studies in Fall 2016 and began its work in earnest. The issues leading to the closure of the search began after the names of the finalists, all of Palestinian or Arab American ethnicity, were announced and faculty were invited to attend their research and teaching presentations.

We have maintained all along that the procedural justifications presented by the administration were mere pretexts. We contend that the real reason for the closure was animus toward the national origin and research focus of the finalists incited by pressure from Zionist and Israeli State supporters.

In fact, as we will illustrate below, the administration looked for ways to close the search soon after harassment and pressure on the search committee began. They only resorted to the pretext of procedural violations at the very end, after other options for closing the search were not successful. In our analysis we consider: 1) the timing of the closure and announcement of procedural violations; 2) the administration’s refusal to meet with the search committee to discuss these procedural violations; 3) the deans’ change of mind about completing the search after the finalists were announced; 4) the administration’s search for other reasons to close the search during the month preceding the closure; 5) the administration’s attempt to close the search for issues having to do with placement of the finalist in a department; 6) the administration’s lack of acknowledgement of the pressures on the search committee and the racist and discriminatory content of these pressures.

In his video response in June 2017, Fresno State president Joseph Castro reiterated that there was no pressure on the University by any individual or group and that the search was cancelled for procedural violations. The first procedural violation was stated in an email to the search committee on April 26th announcing the closure -that the committee was not elected by the department of Philosophy, according to Academic Policy. A second one addressing breach of confidentiality was announced a month later by the Provost in an interview with a reporter.

First, it is problematic for the administration to make these claims post factum a month after the search committee had completed all requirements for a valid search. All along, the composition and formation of the search committee had been known and approved by everyone involved. It is also an error to raise election by a department as an issue when the norm for interdisciplinary programs, which have their own faculty and curricula, has been participation of the interdisciplinary faculty and appointment by the dean –a process that was followed in this case.

If procedural violations were the reason for closing the search, it is hard to explain why the administration did so without making any attempt to contact the Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) representative on the committee, Professor Joe Parks, whose role it is to safeguard the integrity of the process itself. Meeting with the EEO as well as the search committee to discuss and investigate the validity of these claims would have been the first line of basic academic protocol. Even after members of the search committee and the director of the Middle East Studies program objected in writing to the stated procedural justification, the administration refused to meet with the search committee and did not even acknowledge receiving the letters. In other words, the real breach of procedure in relation to this search is the administration’s own egregious violation of procedural norms.

The total absence of accountability on the part of the administration is revealing and simply unacceptable from those who govern a public institution. The administration needs to explain why they did not meet with the search committee to discuss the procedural violations cited as grounds for closing an important search for a named position. They need to explain why a month after closure of the search, when the university was in summer break, the administration came out with the breach of confidentiality allegation, publicly maligning the search committee, the EEO, and the director of the MES Program, all the while not having communicated with them. This arbitrary behavior flies in the face of accepted academic governance.

At closer examination, both deans of Arts & Humanities and of Social Sciences were in fact already looking for ways to close the search soon after the campaign of pressure and harassment began, for a set of different reasons having nothing to do with procedural violations.

After receiving the rank-ordered list of finalists, the dean of Arts and Humanities met with the chair of the search committee on April 3, 2017 and with the search committee on April 5, 2017 to discuss closing the search for reasons having to do with placement of the finalist in an appropriate department. In those meetings he questioned the fact that the finalists’ areas of expertise were in the social sciences, even though this was clearly stipulated in the position description for the search. He also proposed redoing the search the following year, limiting it to Philosophy and English. However, the dean of Social Sciences had interviewed all finalists and agreed to a joint position between the two colleges earlier. And Anthropology, whose chair was on the search committee, was willing to accept the finalist.

The Arts and Humanities dean then asked for a formal vote of Anthropology regarding this matter. The Anthropology faculty voted unanimously to accept the finalist, even though an influential senior faculty and program director, who was critical of the finalists and their research focus, tried to influence the Anthropology vote by contacting a faculty member to dissuade him from supporting the search. This same individual had approached and pressured the dean of Social Sciences to abort the search. The Social Sciences Dean then changed her mind about the search and expressed to one colleague:

“make this search go away.”

This comment indicates that the reasons for closing the search had nothing to do with alleged procedural violations or disciplinary concerns, and everything to do with pressure related to the nature of the search and the finalists.

Since the question of placement in a department was officially resolved, the administration had to find another excuse to close the search. It was then that they met behind closed doors and in a unilateral act of using administrative power, closed the search on procedural grounds, bypassing faculty governance and the role and responsibility of the search committee. The meeting and decision was casually mentioned by the Dean of Social Sciences in response to one of the search committee member’s inquiry about the outcome of the search.

The administration needs to explain why both deans had a change of mind regarding the search, all after the names of the finalists were disclosed and prior to the official cancellation. The parameters of this interdisciplinary search calling for applicants from different disciplines in the humanities and social sciences were transparently clear to them from the beginning. Whether it was pressure or lobby efforts by Zionist gatekeepers both deans looked for ways to close the search long before the discovery of procedural violations.

This brings us to the most egregious part of the administration’s response: the repeated assertion that there was no pressure on the university to terminate the search and thereby reject the finalists.

It is alarming that the administration remained completely silent about the documented pressure and attacks that was exerted on members of the search committee when the names of the finalists were announced. This pressure and these attacks were reported to them and described in detail in letters of objection by search committee members and the director of the program; yet the administration never acknowledged these transgressions; no follow-up occurred even though such interferences violate search protocols. There are many precedents that demonstrate that such silence from an institutional and moral authority makes that authority complicit. In the context of the university it also has a chilling effect on academic freedom and the functioning of search committees in the faculty selection process.

We ask why in the eyes of the administration pressure on the search committee does not count as pressure on the university; and why the administration did not feel responsible to safeguard the integrity of the search by investigating these attacks.

The Dean of Arts and Humanities’ message justifying these attacks in a letter to the College faculty and staff on June 9, 2017, underscores the administration’s dismissive stance:

“The allegations that President Castro, Provost Zelezny, Dr. Rudy Sánchez, Dean DenBeste, or I were lobbied by outside “Israel advocacy groups,” or that a handwritten, one-line note given to a committee member or a comment from one of our humanists (taken out of context) reveal an influence regarding the decision to postpone the search, are wholly unfounded.”

Consider the content of the letter referenced as a ‘one-line note’ by the dean. This note was sent to a search committee member and was followed by a second email communication, and contains more than one offensive remark:

“I wonder whether you are aware of the upset created in members of the Jewish community, both on campus and off, at the candidates for the MES chair?”

The invisibility of this racism towards Palestinian scholars speaks to the broad social acceptability of anti-Palestinian and anti-Arab racism. It may be easier to understand the egregious content of this note by considering more familiar struggles for civil rights and equality. Imagine if this were a search for the department of Chicano Studies or Africana Studies and the finalists were all of those ethnicities. Suppose a similar letter were sent to a search committee member stating: “I wonder whether you are aware of the upset created in members of the white community, both on and off campus, at the candidates for this search?”

Wouldn’t this note be immediately recognized as racist and discriminatory? Would the administration not investigate? Would they not try to protect the search against such unacceptable and racist transgressions? The most pressing questions remain, what is inherently problematic about the finalists for these individuals and groups, what other than national origin can be their objection to the candidates, given that those objecting did not even attend the candidates’ research talks and teaching presentations?

We assert that the sequence of events all indicate that forces other than procedural irregularity converged to close the search: the administration’s attempt to close the search for different reasons as soon as the list was sent forward; their silence and absence of acknowledgement of the reported racist and discriminatory comments regarding the national origin and scholarship of the finalists even while these pressures were documented and reported by the university’s own search committee; their refusal to investigate these interferences and protect search committee members; their lack of response to the formal letters of objection by search committee members and director of the MES program; and their refusal to meet with the search committee at the time of and after closing the search to discuss the procedural issues.

Fresno State has been delinquent in responding to California Public Records Act (CPRA) requests. No additional documents have yet been received in response to a CPRA request submitted by Palestine Legal over two months ago -the legal period for a response being 10 days. During this time a number of articles have appeared in extremist Zionist media, supporting the administration and attacking Samiian and Parks; attacks on the Fresno State MES Program have been many and go back a long way. This alignment of forces itself reveals who has benefited from this closure.

It is clear to us that the university administration caved in to appease the very extremist Zionist groups who are attacking in overt and covert ways academic freedom and first amendment rights of faculty and students across many of our campuses.

We know in this context that there is a massive assault on academic freedom from Zionist extremist groups and a concerted effort to prevent Palestinian, Arab and scholars critical of Israel’s colonial occupation from access to University teaching positions. The case of the Middle East scholar Steven Salaita at University of Illinois opened the door to this kind of interference by Israeli lobby organization with university administrators. The more recent lawsuit brought by the extremist Zionist “Lawfare Project” against professor Rabab Abduhadi along with the College of Ethnic Studies and its dean at San Francisco State University is a current case that points to an intensification of these efforts. And, the unconstitutional bill drafted by AIPAC to criminalize support for Boycott and Divestment against Israel’s illegal occupation, currently under consideration by the Congress is another recent escalation of these forces.

Universities are not fulfilling their educational mission if they promote assent or silence dissent. The American university must remain an open space safeguarding freedom of speech and academic freedom to allow the pursuit of truth and the benefits of intellectual discovery. The responsibility rests with the university faculty and administration to ensure these freedoms are maintained. Above all, it is their individual and collective responsibility not to succumb to the pressures exerted by internal and external interest groups, and especially, if such pressures encroach upon academic freedom directly or indirectly.

Additional Information and Action

To learn more and take supportive action see this post.

About the Authors

Vida Samiian
Professor of Linguistics & Dean Emerita
Former Director of Middle East Studies Program
California State University, Fresno

Joe Parks
Professor of Education
Equal Employment Opportunity Representative
Search Committee for Edward Said Professorship
California State University, Fresno

This open letter was first published by Abolition Journal.