California State University at Fresno pushed back Thursday against faculty claims that a search for an assistant professor in Middle Eastern studies was canceled earlier this spring over the Middle Eastern backgrounds and Palestinian research interests of final candidates.
“In the Edward Said Professorship search, we did not recognize improper search approvals and search committee formation in a timely manner,” the university said in a statement. “No department had actually approved the search, and the search committee was not formed by an election of the department members as is required by our policies. We admit we were too slow and should have canceled this search much earlier based on these academic policy violations.”
In addition to the election and approval issues, the university said it discovered that an “unauthorized party was participating in the search committee’s deliberations, and that this party was sharing perspectives influencing the committee, again a clear violation of our academic policy.”
Lynette Zelezny, university provost, said in an interview that the university heard nothing from and was certainly not pressured by any group or individual about the search, as has been alleged. Zelezny expressed regret that the process got so far along before she became aware it was problematic, but said Fresno State must follow policy.
She declined to comment on the identity of any unauthorized party involved in the confidential search, saying it “might” be a personnel issue. The professorship, funded in part by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities and a private donor, was initially approved as a philosophy department search, yet there were no philosophers on the search committee, she added.
“We were way too slow in recognizing that we had an improper search committee in terms of no election and other factors,” Zelezny said. “We’ve learned from this. … This is very unusual -- typically we don’t see these kinds of issues in our searches.”
The chair of the search committee did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Vida Samiian, the current Middle East studies director who resigned in protest from that post last week over what she alleged was Fresno State’s buckling to political interference in the search, remained unconvinced that the university had acted out of concern for policy alone.
“As I said before, there was no problem with the search committee or the process until the list of finalists was announced,” she said via email. “This was an interdisciplinary search for an interdisciplinary program. The procedural error they claim justifies canceling the search (having a search committee that is appointed, not elected) has been in fact the norm and past practice for interdisciplinary searches. Moreover, membership of this search committee was announced in the faculty meeting of the Middle East studies program and approved by the faculty.”
Samiian guessed that she was the “unauthorized” party involved in the search, but said she was assisting the search committee in an advising capacity as founder and director of the Middle East studies program. Zelezny’s office “was aware of this and authorized me to use the software to access files,” she said. “I did not participate in the interviews or the deliberations for selecting among the finalists.”