Did Jewish faculty pressure Fresno State not to hire a Middle Eastern professor?

Vida Samiian, linguistics professor and former director of the Middle East Studies program, resigned from Fresno State after the university canceled a committee that was searching for an assistant professor for the Edward Said Professorship in Middle East Studies.
Vida Samiian, linguistics professor and former director of the Middle East Studies program, resigned from Fresno State after the university canceled a committee that was searching for an assistant professor for the Edward Said Professorship in Middle East Studies. Fresno State

Allegations that the hiring at Fresno State of a Middle Eastern professor got derailed because of pressure by pro-Israeli faculty and groups is embroiling the university in a controversy that stretches far beyond the campus.

A contentious halt to a search committee charged with hiring an assistant professor for the Edward Said Professorship in Middle East Studies is drawing criticism because the university ended the search process in the final stages.

Fresno State said it did nothing wrong when it closed the search committee in April because an “unauthorized party” had taken part in its deliberations – a violation of academic policy. The university did not disclose who was the “unauthorized party.”

But Vida Samiian, a professor and former director of Fresno State’s Middle East Studies program, resigned in protest. She alleged the university caved to pressure from groups who opposed the candidates of Middle Eastern origin who were finalists for the post, and that her concerns about that were never addressed.

The university accepted Samiian’s resignation and she no longer is employed at Fresno State. Samiian had three years left in the Faculty Early Retirement Program. She is a former dean of the College of Arts and Humanities.

In her May 21 resignation letter to current College of Arts and Humanities Dean Saul Jimenez-Sandoval, Samiian alleges the search for the assistant professor for the Edward Said Professorship in Middle East Studies for the College of Arts and Humanities’ philosophy department was canceled “based on animus towards the national origin, racial and ethnic background of the four finalists.” Jimenez-Sandoval declined to speak to The Bee about the cancellation, deferring to the university provost, the lead spokeswoman on the issue.

Fresno State Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs Lynette Zelezny said the search was ended based on academic policy violations.

“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,” Zelezny said in a statement. “In particular, the individuals who determined to cancel the search and reopen it next year were not exposed to any pressure from any source at any point in time during the search.”

She also said none of the candidates had a focus that would fall under the College of Arts and Humanities; three of the candidates studied anthropology, and another studied social sciences.

Discrimination alleged

Joe Parks, the Equal Employment Opportunities representative on the search committee and an education professor at the university, disagreed with Zelezny’s statements that the closure of the committee was based on policy violations. He agreed with Samiian, who was not a member of the committee, and said the cancellation was a “discriminatory act.”

Parks said he had been on the committee since its inception and that Vice President of Academic Affairs Rudy Sanchez was “well aware” of what the committee was doing. Sanchez did not respond to a request for an interview.

“As an (Equal Employment Opportunities representative), I check the process,” Parks said. “The search was canceled because when the finalists came to campus, the Jewish faculty complained.”

Parks said the four top candidates “happened to be Middle Eastern in nature,” and claims the university “caved” to the complaints from Jewish faculty on campus. “Several of the (Jewish) faculty contacted members of the committee,” Parks said. “I am very confident about that based on what the committee members told me.”

The Bee was unable to reach the director of Fresno State’s Jewish Studies program for comment.

Samiian’s letter highlighted at least three instances where committee members were questioned about the finalists. She wrote that in one case, an outside note to a committee member stated “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?”

Parks said any evidence of communication to the committee members has “no chance” of being publicly shown because faculty at Fresno State are “afraid to buck the administration.”

A joint letter from the Middle East Studies Association of North America Inc. and the Committee on Academic Freedom was sent to Fresno State on June 2, stating “we have good reason to believe that the explicit and implicit sentiments expressed in those comments unduly influenced the decision to cancel the search.”

The letter further stated that Fresno State should revoke the cancellation, restore the search committee and proceed to select a candidate from the list of finalists.

Restarting process

Zelezny said the university plans to restart the search in spring of 2018. The four candidates on the original list are invited to apply again, she said.

The search committee began interviewing candidates in November 2016, according to Zelezny – about five months before Jimenez-Sandoval realized the finalists were not qualified for the philosophy department.

In March, Jimenez-Sandoval reportedly took issue with the candidates, Zelezny said. On April 26, the search was closed. Zelezny said the process could only be fair if the search started over.

A university spokeswoman said that about $3,000 was spent on advertising the post and travel, hotel and meals for the candidates.

Samiian’s letter pointed to advocates of Israel and those in the Jewish community whom she believes began a “campaign of harassment and intimidation” in order to “influence and derail” the search process.

University professors across the country have also expressed concerns, alleging Fresno State’s policy reasons are merely pretexts.

“After writing a number of letters of objections ... I felt the only way left for me was to resign and make a statement with my action,” Samiian said.

One Jewish group did not support the university’s handling of the issue.

An online petition by the Jewish Voice for Peace group condemned the cancellation of the search and asked the university to publicly state a commitment to academic freedom.

“This action appears to be based on a false and discriminatory presumption that a focus on Palestine in a Middle (East]) studies department would somehow negatively impact the ‘Jewish community,’ ” the petition read.

Samiian said the research of the Middle Eastern finalists focused on that region, including Palestine.

Naomi Dann, media manager for Jewish Voice for Peace, said canceling the search in its final stages – when the finalists were ranked and the nomination list was being forwarded to the dean – was particularly alarming because “it sets a dangerous precedent for academic freedom.” Jewish Voice for Peace, based in Oakland, works with Palestinians to find common ground on issues.

Zelezny said nobody tried to influence the university one way or the other based on the ethnicity of the finalists. “We received no pressure,” Zelezny said. “I did not know who the candidates were.”

She said any allegations that the university was influenced by pro-Israel groups are “unfounded.” And Zelezny added that the university stands by its respect for academic freedom as well as its academic policies.

Silencing discussion?

Despite Parks’ understanding that the Sanchez had been aware of the search process, Zelezny said “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.”

The chair of the anthropology department at Fresno State confirmed that department voted unanimously on April 7 to house the assistant professor.

The Islamic Human Rights Commission sent a letter to Fresno State President Joseph Castro, questioning the search committee's cancellation and also alleging it came after lobbying from pro-Israeli groups that the commission claims have targeted academic institutions to often silence narratives with which they do not agree.

"Their aim is to prevent a critical discussion of Israeli policies," the letter said.

The commission urged the president to reverse the decision, as well as asked the university to allow Samiian to resume her positions. The commission’s letter further stated, “It is a matter of grave concern that the rug has been pulled from under the appointment at the point where the search committee was ready to select a candidate.”

Zelezny said the university is preparing a response to the commission, which is based in the United Kingdom.

Cresencio Rodriguez-Delgado: 559-441-6304, @cres_guez