The allegations are explosive: Fresno State engaged in racism to cancel a search for a professorship named after a well-known Palestinian advocate. And, Jewish groups, both within Fresno State and from the outside community, lobbied for such a cancellation.
In a newly-released video today (June 7), Fresno State President Dr. Joseph Castro denies that racism had any part of the cancellation. "The allegations shared by some in the media that the search was cancelled from pressure from anyone is untrue," he says.
Last fall, the university sought to seek out a new faculty member for an endowed chair, named after Edward Said. The late Columbia University professor was known for his support of Palestinians and the concept of "Orientalism."
But in April, Fresno State cancelled the search, seeking technical errors with the makeup of the search committee. Castro, in his video, says the search was approved to be part of the philosophy department, but the search committee was not elected by that department, a violation of the school's Academic Policy Manual. Castro also said an unauthorized party participated in the search committee's deliberations, also a violation of policy.
Fresno State would not reveal who the unauthorized part was, nor what their role was in the committee.
Dr. Vida Samiian served as Dean of the College of Arts & Humanities and is a well-known advocate for Palestinian issues herself while at Fresno State. Up until last month, Samiian taught in semi-retirement, part of a Fresno State "Faculty Early Retirement Program" that allows retired faculty to teach one semester every three years.
That is until she resigned in protest over the Said Professorship search. In her letter, she alleged "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."
She also documented supposed instances where "a colleague" questioned aspects of the search and the finalist, including why the professorship was named after Said. Samiian also alleged that a member of the community questioned the committee about thoughts of the Jewish community in the search.
Samiian helped acquire the grant money for the Said Professorship and served a small role during the search to fill it. The school, in a reply to a GV Wire inquiry, says, "She was given initial authorization to provide feedback on the very early stages of the pool of candidates."
Dr. Joe Parks, who participated in the committee, says she served as a consultant, which would not be unusual.
GV Wire spoke with two members of the search committee. One agreed with Samiian's assessment of racism. The other would not confirm or deny such speculation.
The search committee consisted of Dr. Partow Hooshmandrad (Music), chair of the committee; Dr. James Mullooly (Anthropology); and Dr. Magdalena Gilewicz (English). Parks (Education) served as a non-voting Equal Employment Opportunity Designee.
GV Wire spoke to Parks about these allegations. Samiian quoted Parks in her letter, writing, "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."
Parks, who has been with Fresno State for 19 years, confirmed those thoughts in an interview. His role was to make sure the committee's search treated all applicants fairly. He does not accept the university's reasoning.
"The search was cancelled purely on racial discrimination matters. There were direct complaints to members of the committee as to why the four final applicants were of Middle Eastern origin or heritage," Parks said.
He says that Samiian and the other committee members told him that they received complaints from "members of the faculty who are of Jewish heritage (Jewish religion) and community members from the Jewish community who objected to the fact that the four finalist are of Middle Eastern ethnicity." However, Parks said he heard of the complaints second hand and did not know who exactly they were from. But, he believed they were local groups.
A Fresno State spokesperson notes that Parks "did not report any contact, pressure or issues to administrators" despite his allegations and role as the Equal Employment Opportunity designee.
GV Wire also spoke to Mullooly. He would not confirm or deny Samiian's allegations.
[GV Wire attempted to reach Gilewicz and Hooshmandrad. Both had automatic e-mail replies announcing they are unavailable at the moment.]
In his video, Castro vehemently denies such charges. "No university official was pressured by any individual or group to cancel the search based on the candidate's ethnic background or political point of view," he said. "It is unfortunate that these unfounded allegations have drawn so much attention. Our dedication to diversity remains strong and is sincere."
Castro says the search will start again next year.
GV Wire reached out to Samiian to ask her which Jewish groups allegedly applied pressure. In a brief phone conversation, she did not provide a direct answer, preferring to communicate via e-mail. She has yet to provide a response to GV Wire's emailed questions.
A spokesperson from the Jewish Federation of the Central Valley says they had nothing to do with this and they did not find out about the issue until it was initially reported upon last week. Other members of the Jewish community, who did not want to speak publicly, have said the same thing.
Vic Rosenthal wrote the blog "Fresno Zionism" and was critical of Samiian. The former Fresnan is now living in Israel. He e-mailed GV Wire: "I emailed my friends in Fresno and as far as I could tell, this controversy is entirely contained in the university. If there were outside groups involved, they are keeping quiet about it, which is highly unlikely."