The search and the cancellation of that search for an instructor position at Fresno State had led to the resignation of a prominent professor.

Fresno State was looking to hire a professor for its Middle East Studies Program. In the university hierarchy, the program is within the Department of Philosophy, which itself is in the College of Arts & Humanities.

The professorship was named in honor of the late Columbia University professor Edward Said, who died in 2003 after a long illness. His New York Times obituary called him “the most prominent advocate in the United States of the cause of Palestinian independence.”

A Google search will show that his views could be polarizing, depending on your point of view.

Fresno State convened a committee for the Said Professor search in September 2016 but halted in April 2017. Provost Lynnette Zelezny explained to GV Wire that the committee failed certain protocols. “The search committee in the beginning had not been formed properly. There was not a philosopher on the search committee. This was our mistake. This had not come to our attention,” Zelezny said.

“There was a discovery that there was influence from outside the search committee during the deliberations of the candidates,” Zelezny added. She would not elaborate when pressed.

Dr. Vida Samiian, a former dean of the College of Arts and Humanities and a linguistics professor, called foul. Although now in semi-retirement, she sent a letter of resignation to current Dean Saul Jimenez-Sandoval.

Samiian called the cancellation “discriminatory” and questioned whether it was because the finalists were of Palestinian descent. “[T]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,” Samiian wrote.

Later in the letter, Samiian accuses “Israel advocacy groups” of influencing the search. “[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,” Samiian wrote.

The problem, Samiian pinpointed, was criticism of Israel. “However, the big taboo has always been, and remains, Israel.  Any critical discussion of Israeli policies or Israel’s illegal occupation of Palestine would be met with a campaign of harassment and intimidation, even letters of protest to the Chancellor of CSU, coming all the way from Israel,” she wrote.

Samiian has been accused in the past of having an anti-Israel bias. As reported on the blog FresnoZionism, Samiian reported to have testified at a 2011 CalPERS meeting:

The U.S. and Israel represent societies whose goals and practices are sharply antitypical [sic]. The idea pursued by American society is essentially inclusive. Israel on the other hand has a publicly stated goal that is inherently exclusive. This inherent exclusivity has lead to 60 years of systemic segregation within Israel proper and over 30 years of ethnic cleansing in the occupied territories, a blatant violation of international law …

[Note: FresnoZionism hasn’t published since 2014, but its archives remain on the internet.]

Fresno State, in a statement to GV Wire, denied Samiian’s charges.

In the Edward Said Professorship search we did not recognize improper search approvals and search committee formation in a timely manner.   No department had actually approved the search 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 cancelled this search much earlier based on these academic policy violations.

These problems were further compounded when we discovered 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.  After assessing all of these violations to our academic policy, we acted immediately to cancel to search.

During the search, the university was never pressured by any individual or group to cancel the search based on candidates’ ethnic background or political point of view; it is unfortunate that attention has been improperly directed to this unfounded allegation.

The university stands by its academic policies, respect for fairness and academic freedom, and its action related to this search.

Our dedication to diversity runs deep and is sincere, and we are fully focused on making sure that next year the search is successful in attracting a qualified scholar who will enrich our curriculum in Middle East Studies and Said scholarship. 

“The University never received any pressure from individuals or groups prior to the cancellation of this search,” Zelezny said. “Those allegations are untrue.”

Zelezny added that Samiian helped name and endow the professorship. They will now try to fill it next year.

“It is a named position that we are very proud of,” Zelezny said.

Similar professorships at Columbia and the American University of Beirut are also named for Said.

Funding for the Fresno State Said Professorship comes from donor funds, a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities (coming from federal government program) and funds from the College of Arts and Humanities. A university spokesperson did not have the names of the individual donors as of press time.

A 2004 Campus Watch story listed the donors for Columbia’s Said Professorship. Some of the money came from a foreign government, the United Arab Emirates. Zelezny says she doubts a foreign government is covering Fresno State’s Said professorship.

Three professors served as voting members on the search committee: Dr. Partow Hooshmandrad (Music), chair of the committee; Dr. James Mullooly (Anthropology); and Dr. Magdalena Gilewicz (English). Dr. Joe Parks (Education) served as a non-voting Equal Employment Opportunity Designee

Joining Samaiian in protest, dozens of academics from Fresno State and elsewhere, sent a letter to university President Joseph Castro, writing:

It seems the search was cancelled with the pretext of procedural concerns, but in fact in response to pressures from Israel advocacy groups. This has ramifications for academic freedom and free speech, and could potentially qualify as national origin discrimination.

Zelezny says the search for the Said professorship was one of sixty searches for an instructor this year. She said the error was rare.

Inside Higher Ed first reported this story on May 31, 2017.



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Contact David Taub

Phone: 559-492-4037 / e-mail

This story was not subject to the approval of Granville Homes.

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