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….

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.