In April, administrators at California State University at Fresno canceled a search to fill the Edward Said Chair in Middle East Studies after a committee came up with four finalists, all of whom were reported to be of “Middle Eastern background” and to be focused on Palestinian issues. The head of the Middle East Studies program then resigned in protest over the cancellation of the search; in doing so, Vida Samiian wrote that pro-Israel advocacy groups and individuals had applied pressure to end the hiring process– with one colleague writing, “I wonder if you know how concerned the Jewish community is on campus and outside about the finalists for the Middle East search.”
The episode has recalled the abrupt firing of Steven Salaita by the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign in 2014 after a campaign by Israel advocates and donors to cancel his contract because of his tweets critical of Israel’s assault on Gaza that summer. Salaita, a professor at Virginia Tech, has reportedly said that the Fresno/Said professorship cancellation looks “damn near identical” to his own case.
On June 30th, one of the finalists published a piece titled, “Notes from a Finalist,” under the byline “Anonymous,” at the Abolition website. Here it is, followed by Vida Samiian’s resignation letter of May.
Notes from a Finalist: On the cancelled Edward Said Professorship search at Cal State Fresno
Steven Salaita recently stated, “If an entire nationality/ethnic group/political concern is going to be systematically excluded from Western universities, then the sources of that exclusion need to be vigorously identified and condemned.” For those groups that have historically been the targets of systemic forms of discrimination, the burden of proof is often beyond reach in the public court of appeal. While there is evidence of denial of life opportunities, how the denial was effected remains obscure and not readily traceable.
Proceduralism—the idea that established criteria govern the validity of a procedure’s outcome—has been the rule in enacting institutional discrimination. As Salaita is painfully aware, proceduralism is the loophole for backdoor politics.
California State University Fresno using the pretext of procedural errors to terminate the Edward Said Chair in Middle East Studies (MES) search, at the very last hour, is a case in point. The search had been underway for many months: a large pool of applicants was reduced to a long-list of candidates. The long-list were vetted via video interviews and then reduced further to a final four candidates. The four candidates were each invited for a complex series of campus interviews. At the point when the Search Committee had submitted a rank ordered list of the finalists to the Dean for an offer to be made, the administration terminated the entire search, citing procedural errors as to how the Search Committee was formed.
As one of the finalists, I find the appeal to procedural details flagrantly disingenuous. Once the administration claimed ‘procedural errors’, it closed off any questioning of the validity of their decree. The burden of proof has, instead, been cast elsewhere, onto the Director of the Middle East Studies program and founder of the Said Chair, Vida Samiian. Professor Samiian resigned in objection to the abrupt cancellation, on grounds that it was not procedural errors but discrimination at play against the four finalists’ ethnic backgrounds and focus of scholarship. The finalists are all Palestinian and/or Arab-Americans. The context and grounds of her resignation are detailed in her publicly available resignation letter.
The strength of the Israeli lobby lies in not always acting as outside pressure but also in functioning from inside institutions thanks to individuals who occupy gate-keeping positions, and from the strategic position of the insider post, enact their commitment to Israel in and through everyday administrative tasks. At a certain level, this is unsurprising. But increasingly ideological support of Zionism has led to everyday negation of anything Palestinian that crosses their desks and scope of power. And since these quiet forms of violence are not readily traceable, the onus continuously falls on those suffering discrimination to prove the same cause in each and every case.
While through freedom of information it is in some cases possible to know of the ‘outside’ pressure against critique of Israel, it is highly difficult to document the working of figures ‘inside’ a given institution. Key individuals who know well the legal formalities can ensure ideological opposition is executed in such a way that no one can prove what undergirds the process of cancellation. Or how such actions would enact the wishes of other faculty members who cooperated to find such loopholes. This is precisely how anti-Palestinian discrimination becomes business as usual, beyond the spectacle.
The quiet workings of gatekeepers on the ‘inside’ function alongside visibly public techniques to smear critics of Israeli state policy with anti-Semitism and to criminalize the non-violent civil tactic of boycott when invoked as part of opposition to Israeli state policy. This is evidenced in the recent ‘concerns’ raised about N. Bruce Duthu, a scholar of Native American background and Dean at Dartmouth College. Duthu was accused of “supporting a movement [BDS] that is substantially anti-Semitic…” in the words of Dartmouth economist Alan Gustman, so legitimating Duthu’s resignation.
When Israeli lobbyists adopt these tactics in academic contexts, university administrators want to run the other direction, at all costs, abandoning their critical sensibilities in the process. While the onus should be on these individuals and groups to prove how political support for Palestinian rights is inherently anti-Semitic, in practice the tactic so inspires fear in university administrators that they act to give credibility to the false allegation of anti-Semitism.
The tactic succeeds because accusations of anti-Semitism evoke a shameful association with the Holocaust, and therefore a potential association with anti-Jewish racism. The violence of the accusation closes down critical thought processes in an emotional manner, which is the intended reaction. The illogical links we are being asked to accept in such claims are thereby easily overlooked, namely, why is commitment to and the possibility of a thriving Palestinian humanity inherently anti-Semitic?
The answer lies in the simple fact these illogical links have been normalized. Prevailing notions of a thriving Israel have come to depend on erasure of Palestinian humanity. Israeli humanity depends on Palestinians not being perceived, and hence, not being treated as human.
The underlying concern of Israeli state supporters lies well outside the confines of academia, therefore. It is as if the existence of anything Palestinian itself casts doubt on Zionism as a benign and just ideology. Such a concern is a natural outcome of a national mythology in which Palestinians should not exist. Other indigenous people are well aware of what it means to be a ‘problem’ in the coveted land of a settler state. That Israel itself is a settler state remains, however, the last taboo, as Edward Said once remarked.
As one of the four finalists for the Edward Said Chair, I returned from the campus interview to experience a prolonged waiting period. When the news was finally delivered, I did not learn whether I had gotten the position or not. Rather, the email informed me that the position had been cancelled altogether, due to unforeseen administrative issues. Given the work and collective investment that went into preparing for the Said Chair appointment over many months, the end came as a shutdown followed by silencing.
For the record, the campus interviews were conducted non-stop from 9-6, and included a research talk, teaching presentation, separate interviews with Deans from two different colleges, interview with the Chair of the Philosophy Department, with the Search Committee and with others. Strangely one of the procedural errors cited is that there were no philosophy faculty members on the Search Committee, as the MES program is currently housed in Philosophy. Since the Chair of Philosophy interviewed the finalists it is peculiar that he did not at the time object to the absence of a faculty member of his department on the Search Committee; perhaps a gag order has been imposed on any faculty contradicting official narrative regarding the search.
Additionally, prior to receiving the four finalists on campus, the Search Committee conducted telephone interviews with two of my references. Each interview involved an international call lasting one hour. Detailed questions were asked relating to my credentials for the position. Neither of my references had ever experienced the like in their long academic careers. This is only one example of the level of meticulous professionalism from the Search Committee evident throughout the selection process.
The processes of academic job searches, all the more for appointment to named chairs, are routinely vetted at every stage by various tiers of university administration. Given how meticulous the search process was, the burden of proof should here fall on the university’s administration to substantiate their belated alleged procedural claims.
Yet, this is precisely the virtue of proceduralism in the hands of an abusive administration; it can be drawn upon at any stage as a reason unto itself, with scant evidence at hand, even at the conclusion of a long and vigilant academic search and selection.
At present, the administration intends to rerun the search next year while actively ignoring the finalists in the current search, the damage done to those who had already gone through the rigorous vetting process, or to the candidate whose job offer was imminent. The silence is expressive and represents a complete disregard of the investment of those who applied, who stood as references, who worked to select, only to be told that it was all a procedural error. That the administration is already, and casually, focusing on next year’s search only underscores this brazen erasure.
And even here the status of Palestinians weighs heavily. If not for their systemic discrimination, the finalists could complain or sue publicly. But while I may have been one of the finalists, I cannot write in my name. Any publicity such an act might entail would ensure punishment in any future job searches, in similar untraceable ways, as another name on the Israeli lobby’s effective but untraceable blacklist. As with all targets of systemic bigotry, for the blacklist there is nothing but a profile and the credentials we carry for the job at hand become null and void.
CSU Fresno’s administration has grossly undermined the academic integrity of all parties involved in this search, of its own faculty members on the Search Committee, including the professional assessment of the Equal Employment Opportunity representative, whose specific role was to monitor for discrimination. The finalists, the MES Program and its Director Vida Samiian, who felt compelled to resign as a protest against the injustice which otherwise would have been met by silent impunity, terror as usual, have all been damaged by this administrative blow.
That the administration is now trying to malign Professor Samiian to save face rather than to reinstate the appointment after facing international condemnation, only discredits the university’s reputation further. This spin and smear tactic is a well-worn tool of those on the wrong side of history. Samiian’s exemplary track record as a scholar and well-respected leader, committed to the university and the wider community over many years, speaks for itself. It is Samiian who here upholds Said’s intellectual legacy in practice, while knowing the formidable odds she faced in trying to hold powerful institutions to account.
The administration has responded by delimiting the Edward Said Professorship in Middle Eastern Studies—an interdisciplinary position—to only Philosophy and English in next season’s search, and that against the wishes of the MES Program. Eliminating the social sciences—one of the foundations of an Area Studies program—from the Professorship will conveniently exclude those disciplines that relate theory and analysis to empirically-based documentation of social realities in which Palestinian and other Arab lives are wasted. In the case of Palestinians, the reality on the ground remains the Israeli lobby’s Achilles heel, for which the silencing campaigns are required.
Should the administration persist in its announced decisions, it is unconscionable that CSU-Fresno should keep the named Chair and carry out a new search next year—all in the name of Edward Said. That the persons who vetoed the outcome over the objections of the Search Committee, MES Director, and the MES faculty, should benefit from having a post in Edward Said’s name associated with the university while gutting his intellectual legacy, should not be allowed to happen.
What has transpired at both CSU Fresno and Dartmouth call into question freedom of speech and freedom from interference by a foreign government. Suppressing ideas and voices simply because they displease a foreign government and its supporters dumbs us all down. It distracts from underlying issues at play about who has the power to speak. If your voice is silenced, who was able to shut it down, why did they get to shut it down, and by what mechanisms? And, then, how does the whole thing usually go silent?
The implications of the cancelled Edward Said Professorship search at California State University Fresno thus affect all of us. While we are the ‘concern’ today, it could easily be you tomorrow.
Next, here is the letter of resignation, dated May 21, from Vida Samiian, director of the Middle East Studies Program.
Dear Dean Jimenez-Sandoval:
I am writing to let you know that I will not be returning to complete the remainder of my FERP term at California State University, Fresno. I have decided to resign in objection to the unethical and discriminatory cancellation of the Edward Said Professorship search by AVP Rudy Sanchez after all aspects of the search had been completed by the search committee. Although he cited a procedural justification for the cancellation, 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.
On April 26th, the interdisciplinary search for the Edward Said Professorship was abruptly canceled by Rudy Sanchez, AVP for Academic Affairs, stating that several “concerns” about the search were brought to his attention, including an alleged violation of APM 301 regarding the election of the search committee. It was not clear what other “concerns” had been brought forth and who had brought forth these “concerns.” The cancellation came at the end of the process, after the search committee had ranked the finalists and forwarded the list with nominations to the Dean, and after the Anthropology Department had unanimously voted to house the prospective hire, at the request of the Dean of Arts and Humanities. The search was closed despite your efforts and over the objections of the search committee.
Letters and emails of protest to this unjustified cancellation by search committee members and myself, as director of the Middle East Studies program, remained unanswered (see attachments). It was puzzling why suddenly strict compliance with APM 301 could result in closure of the search, considering that the search was in process for over a year, and the search committee had begun its work in September 2016, with the full knowledge and approval of the department chair, the dean, and the AVP for Academic Affairs. Compliance with APM 301 had never before been raised. If it had been raised, there would have been opportunities to adjust to comply.
To understand what really happened, we have to look at the facts. There was no expression of “concern” about the search and APM 301 until the names of the four finalists for campus interviews were announced and colleagues were invited to attend their lectures. These finalists were, appropriately, Middle Eastern Americans and their research focused on the region, in particular Palestine. As I have explained in an earlier letter, it was then that 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.
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. I am sure the administration, especially the Deans and the Provost, received additional communications against the candidates and the search.
Such comments and interferences are attacks on academic freedom, integrity of the search process, and the principles of non-discriminatory practice that we uphold in the academy. These were reported to the administration, but instead of addressing the discriminatory nature of these attacks, the administration carried out the request of the attackers and decided to close the search. By doing so the administration chose to implement the discriminatory demands of the Israel advocacy groups and individuals.
As Professor Joe Parks, the Equal Employment Opportunity representative on the Search Committee, wrote in response to the final cancellation of the search on May 11, 2017:
“As a young man during the 1960s, I am an old Civil Rights fighter and recognize racism when I see it in front of me. I believe the administration ‘caved’ to racism because the four finalists were of Middle Eastern ethnicity…. I believe the administration violated the integrity of the academic search and the Academic Freedom of Higher Education in the United States of America. It is shameful that we are still fighting racism, bigotry and hatred during this new 21st century.”
For those of us who were instrumental in the development of the interdisciplinary Middle East Studies program such attacks are not new. The history of these types of discriminatory harassment and intimidation goes back over fifteen years to the post 9/11 era, when some of us from the Middle East, or with expertise about the Middle East, planned courses, lectures and outreach programs to educate the campus and the broader community about the Middle East. 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. Later on when we developed the MES program through a grant from the U.S. Department of Education and held major conferences on the Middle East, special interest groups such as Campus Watch and “FresnoZionism.org” continued to harass faculty and expert scholars. So, it is not surprising that this is continuing today, when we are at the point of hiring a faculty member for a named Edward Said Professorship in Middle East Studies.
What has changed is that the previous administration stood by the principles and legal obligations of Academic Freedom, the First Amendment rights, and Title VI of the Civil Rights Act to protect faculty and students. With speakers like Professors Ilan Pappe, Hagit Borer, and William Ayers, when special interest groups rallied to prevent their talks, the Administration stood up to protect Academic Freedom. I am sad to see that today, with this unjustified closure of the search of the Edward Said Professorship, the current administration is enabling those who lead these discriminatory campaigns of obstruction, intimidation, and harassment.
Again, it is ironic, but not surprising, that a position named after the late Edward Said, whose academic legacy is rooted in anti-colonial intellectual pursuit, is attacked and derailed by individuals and forces that defend the last settler-colonial regime of our times. What is surprising is that AVP Rudy Sanchez facilitated the implementation of this discriminatory effort.
After spending many years and many fights for what is right at this institution, I have no choice but to leave, with great sorrow, in protest to this unethical and discriminatory closure of the search, violation of Title VI, and the shameful injustice inflicted on our superb finalists because of their Middle Eastern and Palestinian ethnicity.
Vida Samiian, Professor of Linguistics
Director of Middle East Studies Program
Dean Emerita, College of Arts and Humanities
California State University, Fresno
Thanks to Ofer Neiman.