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Prominent Arab studies scholar challenges Georgetown in tenure decision

Judged by Unfair Standards?
June 14, 2013

Many scholars are stunned that Georgetown University is denying tenure to Samer Shehata, widely seen as a significant figure in Arab studies. But there is no one theory about why he was denied a permanent spot within the university's Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service. Some say he's being punished for his politics, and his views on the Middle East in particular. Others blame the politics of political science, and say he's being punished because his work is ethnographic and not full of the theory popular within the discipline.

Whatever the reason, a fight is brewing.

Even at a university full of high-profile academics, Shehata, assistant professor of Arab politics at the Contemporary Center for Arab Studies, stands out. He’s been interviewed some 600 times by different media outlets, serving as a go-to public intellectual during the Arab Spring with appearances on shows from PBS’s “News Hour” to Comedy Central’s “The Colbert Report.” He’s written a book and edited another, both published by scholarly presses, and helped establish several new Qatar-based academic programs for the Arab studies center -- where he once served as acting director of the master of arts in Arab studies program. Consequently, Shehata’s tenure denial due to concerns about his levels of scholarly productivity and impact surprised some fellow area studies professors, in addition to students and alumni, who organized a petition against the decision.

But perhaps no one was more stunned than Shehata himself. Each review leading up to his tenure denial had been “stellar,” according to a grievance he filed, and none of his senior colleagues advised him on ways to strengthen his application. “There was no previous indication that my record was deficient in any way, because it wasn’t,” Shehata said in an e-mail interview from the Middle East, where he is traveling. And unlike some other tenure applicants in 2012 and in previous years, he said, he was never advised to take an additional, seventh year before applying to strengthen his portfolio. “In fact, my performance in terms of peer-reviewed scholarly publications, teaching and service objectively exceeds that of other faculty members who were recently tenured in my unit and other departments at Georgetown University.” (In his complaint, Shehata includes Web of Science and Google Scholar metrics to show his citations exceed those of five other Georgetown professors who were successfully tenured in recent years. His entire C.V., including journal articles, is available here.)

School of Foreign Service faculty voted 25 to 13, with six abstentions, in favor of his tenure, according to information from Shehata’s lawyer (who said his colleagues from the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies were not involved in the vote, due to a university regulation). A universitywide committee then denied Shehata tenure, based on the “rigor, quality and inadequate rate of peer-reviewed scholarly publications.” He unsuccessfully appealed the decision before filing a grievance notice in December, which is still active.

In addition to procedural mistakes, Shehata alleges impartial handling of his tenure application by colleagues in the School of Foreign Service as part of a “politically motivated attempt to undermine my status as one of the most visible, well-respected Muslim Arab-American experts on contemporary Arab politics.” For example, Shehata said that in a written summary of external reviewers' letters about his work, Charles King, professor of international affairs and government and chair of the school's rank and tenure committee, “grossly” mischaracterized an assessment: while one reviewer wrote that one of Shehata's projects was "small but highly original," King allegedly wrote that the reviewer said Shehata's portfolio was generally "small." Because Georgetown tenure guidelines state that the "highest indication of scholarship is the ability to make original contributions in one's field of knowledge," the mischaracterization is particularly egregious, Shehata said.

Other elements of his publication and service records were downplayed, Shehata said, including King's reference to a second publication of Shehata's book in 2010 as a "revised edition," when it also included a new chapter based on original research. King also failed to explicitly mention the more than $573,000 Shehata already had raised for his Qatar-based programs and said his media engagements included "(perhaps most famously) Comedy Central's 'The Colbert Report,' " Shehata said. (Although many of the scholars interviewed for this article said they considered an appearance on "The Colbert Report" to be favorable, Shehata said King's decision to highlight the comedy show appearance, out of hundreds of others that included serious analysis -- such as those on those on BBC, CNN and Al Jazeera English -- was "distorting, improper and damaging.") And David Edelstein, school faculty chair and a professor of government, allegedly gave Shehata incorrect information about the number of impartial reviewers he could include with his application and attempted to prevent him from adding materials to his dossier before it went to the universitywide tenure committee, against university policy, Shehata's complaint states.

“Some at Georgetown do not appreciate the fact that I am quite visible in the media and actively engaged in the public discussion of the Middle East and U.S. foreign policy toward the region,” he said. “Some [School of Foreign Service] faculty (and others) do not like this, and do not like the visibility accorded to the [Center for Contemporary Arab Studies] as a result, let alone my views, even though I am not a ‘radical.’ ” (Shehata, an Egyptian native, described his views as “scholarly and based on intimate knowledge of the Arab world and the Middle East. I do not accept mainstream representation of Arab societies as inferior, irrational, or backward, or a view of Islam as a ‘problem’ or inherently extremist.”)

A Georgetown spokeswoman said the university does not comment on specific tenure cases. Edelstein declined to comment on the accusations against him and King did not respond to a request for comment.

Michael C. Hudson, professor emeritus at Georgetown and former director of the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies, now serves as director of the Middle East Institute at the National University of Singapore. In an e-mail, he said doubts about the quality and quantity of Shehata’s work were “truly hard to believe."

"Shehata was and is one of the top new generation of Middle East political scientists. His current [forthcoming] project on the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, based on deep field research, is first-rate and absolutely timely and will enhance his already considerable reputation.” The quantity and quality of Shehata's published works and fluency in Arabic put him alongside or ahead of other, recently tenured professors, he added.

But, Hudson said, “His political ethnographic approach I think offended doctrinaire political scientists in the Georgetown government department who are narrowly committed to quantitative and rational-choice approaches.... There’s a long history of hostility from these quarters toward the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies, to which [Shehata] was affiliated,” largely due to differing prevailing views on foreign policy, and Israel in particular (both the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies and the Department of Government are in the School of Foreign Service). Hudson, who once co-taught with Shehata, added: “Although [Shehata] did not work or comment very much on the Palestine-Israel conflict, he was known to be critical of Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territory and various Israeli military actions in the region, and such views were anathema to some in the government department who would brook no criticism of Israel."

The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee and the Council on American-Islamic Relations each have sent a letter to Georgetown on Shehata’s behalf; the former alleges that conservative political commentator Daniel Pipes; Martin Kramer, scholar at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and the Shalem Center; and Charles Lipson, professor of political science at the University of Chicago “may be improperly connected to his tenure process." A public version of the letter provided by Shehata's lawyer includes redacted portions, with the lawyer saying that the redactions were made to protect the identities to Georgetown faculty affiliated with all three.

Although Pipes and Kramer have made critical references to either Shehata or the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies in the past -- Kramer once called the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies "effectively a lobby for for Arab causes in general and the Palestinian cause in particular"-- they denied any knowledge of his tenure candidacy or involvement in the process. Lipson said he’d never heard of Shehata, but said that in 2004 he had raised questions about Saudi Arabian funding for U.S. academic programs after being contacted by a public relations firm hired by the Saudi Arabian government that advertised Shehata, among others, as speakers on Middle East issues. Both the government and Shehata have said he was not compensated for his time and spoke on his own behalf.

In any case, Lipson said, "To go that far back in a tenure case is grasping at straws."

Shehata also alleges violations of academic freedom. One external reviewer, whom Shehata said has expressed interest in a position at Georgetown and therefore could not be impartial, faulted him for not tying his ethnographic account of Egyptian factory labor dynamics in his book, Shop Floor Culture and Politics in Egypt,  to dominant political science theories. (The reviewer called the book -- for which Shehata worked as a winding machine operator for 10 months in an Egyptian textile factory -- “very good,” but said Shehata failed to develop a “connection between the shop floor and labor activism more generally”). This focus on methodology over content violates free expression of ideas, Shehata said.

The Middle East Studies Association declined to comment on Shehata’s case. But speaking for himself and not the organization, member Zachary Lockman, a professor of Middle East history at New York University who served as an external reviewer in Shehata’s tenure process, said he was “quite surprised” to hear the news. “He’s a significant scholar in the field and he’s produced a lot of excellent scholarly work. …[His book] is a unique lens into Egyptian society that in some ways explains the explosion of popular protest and revolution of January 2011. It’s an essential work for that purpose, to make sense of the dynamics in Egyptian society that set the stage for that revolution.”

But, Lockman said, “Speculation on my part is that his first work was quite ethnographic, and it’s not quite the quantitative, rational choice approach of many political scientists.”

And that – perhaps more than anything else – may be at the heart of Shehata’s denial, other scholars said; although he found success working within the fundamentally interdisciplinary Center for Contemporary Arab Studies, Shehata ultimately is a trained political scientist and, as such, was held to those standards.

“[The] question of whether or not [Shehata] has made a major impact on ‘the field’ is itself what is in contention,” said another Middle East scholar at top-tier institution who wished to have his name withheld. “If the ‘field’ is defined as Middle East or Arab Studies – and given that [Shehata] was the director of the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies, that would seem to be the relevant definition – there is no reasonable doubt about his prominence. If the field is political science, then we have to consider the fact that the dominant methodological paradigm in that field is rational choice and formal modeling. [Shehata] does not do that.”

Either way, the scholar said, fault lies with Georgetown for not counseling Shehata on how to prepare for the tenure decision, such as at the three-year point in his assistant professorship. Instead, “the institution benefited from his administrative work and his prominence as a commentator in the media on Egyptian and other contemporary Arab affairs for three more years and led him to think there was a reasonable chance he would be tenured on the basis of the kind of interdisciplinary scholarship he has always done.”

Ian Lustick, a professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania's Middle East Center, said he was shocked to hear that Shehata had been denied tenure, adding that he had "terrific respect for his work." But, he said, ethnography within political science is a “tough field. It’s not impossible but it’s a question of what you do with it, which journals are you publishing in?” And even scholars such as Shehata who find success within area studies centers are at the mercy of their departments, he said. “The weakness of these centers is that they do not have their own budgets big enough to hire people, so you have to cajole and hope and pray that enough suitable people will be hired by departments with those budgets to staff center programs.”

Hudson agreed that the area studies debate also could be to blame. "[That Shehata] was appointed to a multidisciplinary faculty with primary responsibility in a regional studies center made him an 'outsider' to disciplinary chauvinists," he said.

Shehata hasn’t taken any formal legal action beyond the grievance. Although Shehata already has secured a tenured position at the University of Oklahoma and is due to start in August, he’s still interested in “justice -- to be treated fairly based on my record of scholarship, teaching and service, just like other faculty members at Georgetown University.” To that end, he’s hired a lawyer, Washington-based Lynne Bernabei, who said Shehata is the victim of an internal political fight within university departments about Middle East policy.

“There really can’t be a good case made against his scholarship, despite what they’re trying to say,” she said.

 

 

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