Why Did CSU Fresno Cancel a Politically Controversial Search?

BY HANK REICHMAN

On May 21, Professor Vida Samiian, Director of the Middle East Studies program at California State University, Fresno, and a former dean of humanities at the school, wrote an open letter announcing that she would not complete the remainder of her appointment in the CSU’s Faculty Early Retirement Program in protest of the university’s “unethical and discriminatory cancellation of the Edward Said Professorship search.”  The search for an assistant professor in Middle East Studies, funded in part by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities and by a private donor, was canceled this spring after the names of four finalists were announced.  Although the administration cited a procedural justification for the move, Samiian charged that “the evidence indicates that this was merely a pretext, and in fact the search was cancelled based on animus towards the national origin, racial and ethnic background of the four finalists.  By closing the search, the Administration carried out the vicious and discriminatory attacks launched by Israel advocacy groups against the search committee and the four finalists who were of Middle Eastern and Palestinian ethnicity.”

Samiian wrote that after “the names of the four finalists for campus interviews were announced and colleagues were invited to attend their lectures . . . a documented campaign of harassment and intimidation of search committee members began by Israel advocacy groups to influence and derail the outcome of the search and, if possible, prevent it from moving forward.”  Her letter cited just three examples, however:

The first inappropriate comment was made to a search committee member by a colleague who questioned the selection of the finalists. When invited to attend the lectures to find out more about the finalists, he responded “Why should I come to listen to a talk about Palestine and Lebanon?” The same individual questioned the naming of the position after Edward Said and criticized the four candidates’ areas of scholarship. The next expression was a note to one of the search committee members stating: “I wonder if you know how concerned the Jewish community is on campus and outside about the finalists for the Middle East search. Could you share with me the deliberations of the search committee.” Another member of the search committee was pressured and harassed repeatedly by a retired faculty member who criticized the ideological orientation of some of the finalists and apparently referenced the Canary Mission Website, which is a McCarthyite blacklisting website that profiles students and faculty who have been vocal supporters of Palestinian rights, with the express intention of ruining their careers.

In response to Samiian’s letter, faculty members across the country in Middle East Studies began a petition, sponsored by the Jewish Voice for Peace, which charged that “Israel advocacy groups launched a campaign to cancel the search altogether,” calling it “deeply alarming that academic hiring decisions are being influenced by outside organizations with discriminatory agendas.”  A group called California Scholars for Academic Freedom wrote the administration to protest the cancellation, charging that “a campaign of harassment and intimidation of search committee members was conducted by pro-Israel advocacy groups and individuals” amounting to “an affront to academic freedom and the integrity of academic searches and programs, which are under the purview of the faculty.”

However, Fresno provost Lynnette Zelezny told Inside Higher Ed that “the university heard nothing from and was certainly not pressured by any group or individual about the search.”  Instead, she cited procedural violations which themselves would, if accurate, also violate faculty prerogatives.  “No department had actually approved the search,” she said, “and the search committee was not formed by an election of the department members as is required by our policies. We admit we were too slow and should have canceled this search much earlier based on these academic policy violations.”

In addition, Zelezny charged that an “unauthorized party was participating in the search committee’s deliberations, and that this party was sharing perspectives influencing the committee, again a clear violation of our academic policy.”  According to the IHE account,

Samiian guessed that she was the “unauthorized” party involved in the search, but said she was assisting the search committee in an advising capacity as founder and director of the Middle East studies program. Zelezny’s office “was aware of this and authorized me to use the software to access files,” she said. “I did not participate in the interviews or the deliberations for selecting among the finalists.”

What really happened here?  It’s difficult to say.  To be sure, it would hardly be far-fetched if pro-Israel groups did try to pressure the university and that the procedural violations were largely a pretext for acceding to that pressure.  After all, such groups have not been shy about voicing their opposition to a number of university appointments elsewhere, for example the celebrated 2006 case of Juan Cole at Yale.  But Samiian’s letter — which seems to be the sole source of information for those criticizing the Fresno administration’s action — offers no convincing evidence of this.  The incidents she recounts do not involve outside groups but amount only to expressions of faculty opinion, however inappropriate or crudely put.  I have been told that FOIA requests have been made in an attempt to uncover any inappropriate pressure.  But at this point we cannot say that such interference took place or that the administration yielded to it.  The suspicions of Samiian and her supporters are understandable, but at this point they remain only suspicions.

As Steve Lubet has noted, “Perhaps there was some behind-the-scene maneuvering that killed an appointment to the Edward Said Chair for political reasons. . . . But sometimes a failed search is just a failed search.  We will have to wait and see.”

Moreover, the procedural problems cited by Zelezny do seem serious enough.  Search committees should generally be elected by the faculty and this is clearly Fresno’s policy.  No one seems to deny, however, that an election did not happen in this case.  In addition, the position was to be housed, the university says, in the Philosophy Department [see the position announcement], but no philosophers were on the search committee.  [Samiian’s letter states that it was the Anthropology Department that “had unanimously voted to house the prospective hire.”]

Part of the problem may stem from the fact that this was an interdisciplinary search.  The Fresno policy provides only for the formation of search committees by departments; it is silent about the conduct of interdisciplinary searches, in which the department ultimately housing the new hire may depend on the home discipline of the person selected.  Samiian told Inside Higher Ed that “The procedural error they claim justifies canceling the search (having a search committee that is appointed, not elected) has been in fact the norm and past practice for interdisciplinary searches.  Moreover, membership of this search committee was announced in the faculty meeting of the Middle East studies program and approved by the faculty.”

Whether or not there was outside interference in the search, Samiian’s charge about past use of appointed committees in interdisciplinary searches is credible, if not entirely convincing.  Such violations may well have occurred in the past and simply been ignored for searches in less controversial fields.  If so, CSU Fresno needs to correct its policies to more directly address procedures for the conduct of interdisciplinary searches and ensure that the policies are uniformly enforced.

But Fresno needs to do more than that.  It is not just that the search may have been conducted in a manner open to abuse.  The administration says the search will be reopened next year and that the current finalists will be encouraged to reapply, although one member of the search committee said that applicants will be limited to individuals in English and Philosophy, apparently not the case this year.  When the search is reopened, members of the search committee, the Fresno administration, and all faculty must take special care to ensure that academic freedom is protected.  Here they would be well advised to take heed of what the AAUP wrote in our 2011 report on “Ensuring Academic Freedom In Politically Controversial Academic Personnel Decisions“:

In the case of new appointments, the suitability of competing applicants to the specific prospective position may outweigh their relative professional qualifications and under long-established practice may include consideration of whether the applicant is a “good fit” for the institution or department. Nonetheless, the decision may not rest substantially on impermissible considerations. Accordingly, the 1976 AAUP statement On Discrimination applies to prospective as well as current appointees when it cautions that

“[t]he Association is committed to use its procedures and to take measures, including censure, against colleges and universities practicing illegal or unconstitutional discrimination, or discrimination on a basis not demonstrably related to the job function involved, including, but not limited to, age, sex, disability, race, religion, national origin, marital status, or sexual orientation.”

Although the AAUP has not issued a formal statement on political considerations in the making of new appointments, it has imposed censure in the case of a major university that withdrew an offer of appointment following board disapproval of the political views of the prospective appointee.

Discrimination by a public college or university against prospective appointees based on political views or affiliations unrelated to their professional responsibilities may well be found unlawful. It is certainly at odds with principles of academic freedom. Such discrimination in academic hiring practices by a private university or college, even if lawful, would similarly run afoul of academic freedom. To conclude otherwise would open the door not only to politically rather than academically based appointments but also, as in the 1950s, to political blacklists and similarly unacceptable employment practices.

It is quite possible that more information about this search will emerge either to support or refute Samiian’s charges.  But in the meantime faculty members are right to maintain vigilance, given the dangers associated with allowing impermissible political considerations to impact hiring decisions.  Hopefully, such considerations will have played no role when the Edward Said chair at CSU Fresno is finally filled

2 thoughts on “Why Did CSU Fresno Cancel a Politically Controversial Search?

  1. Pingback: Closure of Edward Said Search at CSU Fresno | Cognitive Liberty

  2. I hope by now that those who write for this blog have read the following anonymous post from one of the job candidates. I think it does a good job of describing how “untraceable” procedural claims are used to mask political ones. Notice too how the candidate reads the restriction of the disciplines for next year’s search to Philosophy and English. I am currently doing research in the West Bank of the Palestinian Territories and find her argument about that restriction compelling and persuasive.

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