According to Prof. Vida Samiian, unacceptable outside pressure recently led to Fresno State University’s suspension of its search to fill the Edward Said Professorship of Middle East Studies. Prof. Samiian angrily resigned from her position on the search committee by posting a public letter condemning the university administration, which had claimed that the search had been called off due to procedural errors in the process. Samiian wasn’t buying it: “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,” she wrote.
That sounds pretty bad, and the university administration has not done much to ease the tension, having declined to provide the details of the procedural irregularity. As reported by Inside Higher Ed, the university provost would say only that the search was canceled “because of critical procedural errors” that violated a policy adopted by the Academic Senate. “When the university administration became aware of these procedural issues, the search was canceled to ensure a fair decision,” said Provost Lynnette Zelezny. “The search will reopen in the spring of 2018. Applicants currently in the search process will be invited to reapply.”
Samiian believes that was a pretext, meant to conceal “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.”
It turns out, however, that there is not much proof for Samiian’s theory. In her lengthy letter (over 1200 words), she cites only three incidents of alleged harassment, which amount to nothing more than a few critical comments from other faculty members, including a request for some additional information. Here Samiian’s account in toto:
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.
Samiian characterizes these relatively minor incidents, all of which apparently involved inquiries from other faculty members, as “attacks on academic freedom, integrity of the search process, and the principles of non-discriminatory practice that we uphold in the academy.”
Then, without any evidence beyond her suppositions, she says “I am sure the administration, especially the Deans and the Provost, received additional communications against the candidates and the search.” It seems that Samiian tends to regard all criticism as harassment. For example, she also complains that a program on “Israel’s illegal occupation of Palestine” had drawn “letters of protest to the chancellor of CSU, coming all the way from Israel.” She also complained that an organization called Campus Watch had harassed “faculty and expert scholars.” Here is Campus Watch’s critique of the Middle East Studies conference at Fresno State, which is harsh but not harassing.
Controversy often generates protests on university campuses, of which letters and blog posts are perhaps the mildest possible forms.
Now, I do not know what actually happened at Fresno State. Perhaps there was some behind-the-scene maneuvering that killed an appointment to the Edward Said Chair for political reasons.
Then again, perhaps Samiian is indulging a conspiracy theory in which “Israel advocacy groups” are able to manipulate university decision makers at will. Let’s call that Occam’s BDS razor, in which Zionists are presumed at fault for everything that goes wrong on campus.
But sometimes a failed search is just a failed search. We will have to wait and see.