By Camille Russell and Dan Yaseen
On April 26, the Fresno State administration abruptly canceled the university’s months-long search for a faculty member to fill the Edward Said Chair professorship and to head the Middle East Studies Program (MESP). No explanation was given to the search committee. This unexpected move prompted Professor Vida Samiian, a longtime Fresno State linguistics professor and former dean of the College of Arts and Humanities, to resign her position with the university in protest.
Local peace and justice groups were appalled by the university’s action. They have attended events hosted by the MESP and learned from its many speakers for more than a decade. After the 2001 U.S. attack and invasion of Afghanistan and the attack and occupation of Iraq in 2003, the local peace groups and activists were eager to learn more about the politics and history of the Middle East.
Fortunately, Dr. Sasan Fayazmanesh, Dr. Vida Samiian and other faculty at Fresno State began the Middle East Forums and Lecture Series. They hosted speakers who were internationally known scholars and professors with expertise in the region and especially on Israel-Palestine. The lectures were popular and well attended by students, faculty, staff and members of the community at large, but had vocal critics from their inception.
When peace community leaders read Professor Samiian’s letter of resignation, they understood it in its historic and political context and were disturbed by its implications for free speech and due process.
Events focusing on the conflict between Israel and Palestine have not set well with those members of the community who support the anti-Palestinian and Zionist policies of the Israeli government. These individuals have been vocal in their opposition to any criticism of the policies of the state of Israel, portraying such criticism as anti-Semitic and anti-Jewish. They have pressured the Fresno State administration for more than a decade to silence any criticism of Israel.
Voices critical of the MESP are not only local but are associated with national organizations sharing this view and working, often successfully, to stifle curriculum, events and activities at colleges and universities nationwide.
With the support of previous Fresno State administrations, Dr. Samiian used the principles and legal obligations of academic freedom, the First Amendment and Title VI of the Civil Rights Act to protect faculty and students. Despite the stress created by these outside forces, she persevered in creating a program that is a credit to Fresno State making it worthy of its designation as a university.
The peace community, the Fresno Center for Nonviolence, Peace Fresno, the Reedley Peace Center and the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom sent a letter to Fresno State President Dr. Joseph Castro asking the university to 1) complete the university’s search for the Edward Said Chair professorship with the current finalists, 2) persuade Dr. Samiian to withdraw her resignation so that she can assist and mentor the Edward Said Chair during the three years remaining on her contract and 3) meet with us to discuss our concerns. He agreed to meet representatives from the four peace groups.
In 2007, professors who initiated the Middle East Lecture Series developed the MESP at Fresno State through a grant from the U.S. Department of Education. It is an interdisciplinary program, which draws faculty and students from different academic disciplines, including anthropology, philosophy, religious studies, women’s studies, history, literature, linguistics, media and film studies, economics, geography and environmental studies.
In the fall of 2015, the director of the MESP requested the Edward Said Chair position. The request was approved by the interim dean of Arts and Humanities and Provost Lynnette Zelezny. The director of MESP also received permission from Mariam Said, the widow of Edward Said, to name the professorship after her late husband.
In support of the Edward Said Chair, an endowment consisting of grants and private funds was established with the knowledge that the named chair would lend prestige to the university and attract highly qualified candidates. By the time the search to fill the position began, the endowment had reached $500,000.
The search committee was selected by the MESP interdisciplinary faculty members with expertise in the Middle East and Edward Said’s scholarship and began its work in September 2016. The four finalists were selected and gave on-campus lectures at Fresno State.
Samiian states, “It was then a campaign of harassment and intimidation of search committee members was started by Jewish faculty on campus and pro-Israeli groups off campus. The administration was informed about these attacks but instead of addressing them, they canceled the search process on April 26.”
When word of the cancellation and Dr. Samiian’s resignation became public, many people contacted the Fresno State administration. President Castro posted a video on June 7 defending the university in a YouTube video (www.youtube.com/watch?v=eksu_OvEJgc&feature=youtu.be). Jewish Voice for Peace circulated a “Faculty letter in defense of Palestinian scholarship at CSU Fresno” which, as of June 26, had been signed by more than 550 faculty from around the United States and the world (http://org.salsalabs.com/o/301/p/dia/action4/common/public/?action_KEY=21820).
The June 26 meeting was cordial. In addition to President Castro, those present from the university were the dean of the College of Arts and Humanities, Saul Jimenez-Sandoval; the associate dean of the College of Arts and Humanities, Honora Chapman; Associate Vice President Rudy Sanchez; and Provost Lynette Zelezny, who was on speakerphone because of illness. Eight of representatives of the peace and justice community attended.
After a welcome and an overview of the situation, Dr. Castro asked the attendees to express their concerns. The peace and justice community attendees each spoke about their admiration of Dr. Samiian and praised the MESP. All expressed displeasure with the abrupt cancellation of the search and questioned the university’s reasons for the search cancellation.
In response, Dr. Castro and Dean Jimenez-Sandoval admitted the university’s mistake in not catching the violations of the Academic Policy Manual in time and addressing them when they occurred. They reiterated their commitment to academic freedom, to the First Amendment and to selecting a qualified person for the Edward Said Chair position.
They promised that the selection process would be transparent, the job position description would remain the same and invited the attendees to witness the public lectures of the finalists. Also, the four finalists would be asked to apply again next year. The reason given to postpone the selection process until next year was that Dr. Partow Hooshmandrad is on sabbatical.
The local peace community will never know exactly how the 2016–17 search for the Edward Said Chair went awry. Was it simply an error? Was it pressure? One person’s statement suggested the subtlety with which pressure can be applied, “Possibly the new administration is not aware of how these things work.”
There is pain and frustration on both sides. The peace and justice community hopes that the administration is genuine in its commitment to selecting a new faculty member who meets the criteria set forth in the original job posting. This appears to be the case, and all will be watching.
An understanding of the history, politics and dynamics of the Middle East is needed by all Americans because for the past several decades our government has fought, funded and perpetuated war in the region. We need to be able to get uncensored information from scholars, authors and activists who know and represent the Middle East. We look to Fresno State to continue informing the community.
Camille Russell is vice president of Peace Fresno, a Community Alliance Board member and a retired elementary teacher. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Dan Yaseen is the president of Peace Fresno and the advertising director of the Community Alliance newspaper. Contact him at email@example.com.