Thursday, June 08, 2017

What is Going on at Fresno State?

There's a brewing controversy at Fresno State, where the university has restarted a search for the Edward Said Professorship of Middle East Studies after determining that the current search -- which had already selected a series of finalists -- had various procedural defects in violation of university guidelines (all the finalists were invited to reapply in the new search). An emeritus professor of Linguistics at the university, Vida Samiian, has publicly alleged, however, that this is all a pretext and that the search was canceled due "a documented campaign of harassment and intimidation ... by Israel advocacy groups" seeking to "derail" the search.

That sounds pretty bad. The problem is that, as my friend Steven Lubet has observed, there is virtually no evidence backing up these allegations. The university administration flatly denies having even been contacted by, much less subjected to pressure from, any outside groups. And Ben Sales at JTA interviewed members of the (relatively small) Fresno-area Jewish community had found that nobody there had even heard of the search, much less agitated against it.

The closest thing to actual evidence that Samiian has in her letter is a few instances of relatively anodyne expressions of concern by Jewish faculty members about how the search was progressing. She histrionically labels these "harassment", but they deserve that label only if it expands to encompass "Jews saying words." And again, none of them speak to any sort of campaign or concerted effort by anyone to have the search canceled (there is one stray reference to "outside" concerns about the search, but again, nobody has presented any proof of any such outside pressure manifesting).

Of course, a complete lack of evidence didn't stop JVP from rapidly circulating a letter taking as fact that the search was canceled "in response to pressures from Israel advocacy groups" who "launched a campaign to cancel the search altogether". Abba Eban once famously quipped that "If Algeria introduced a resolution declaring that the earth was flat and that Israel had flattened it, it would pass by a vote of 164 to 13 with 26 abstentions." So too, it seems, that if JVP circulates a letter saying Fresno State was devoured by a hellmouth and Israel had summoned it, it would amass 500 signatures within the week.

Lubet uses this to coin the term "Occam's BDS razor": the simplest explanation, anytime anything on campus doesn't go precisely the way pro-Palestinian advocates would like, is the interference of nefarious pro-Israel lobbying. We can see how that mentality shook out at Fresno both "vertically" and "horizontally". "Vertically", a few offhand remarks that were critical of the search proceedings got elevated to cases of "harassment". And "horizontally", these few remarks were roped together to form the locus of an imagined conspiracy of intimidation against the entire search. The ease at which these jumps are made is itself illustrative of antisemitism in its structural dimension -- even the tiniest shreds of Jewish public or private  discourse immediately metastasize into dark threats of domineering power. Such moves, I have to think, wouldn't fly (or wouldn't fly as easily) were they not so easily slotted into the grooves of antisemitic discourse.

So underneath all of this sound and fury, is there any there, there? It seems supremely unlikely that there was any "pressure" or "campaign" from Israel advocacy groups with respect to this search. But if there is a bare kernel here, I suspect it's something like the following: the administration admits it was too slow to catch onto the procedural shortcomings of the search (lack of approval by a specific department, failure to form the search committee via departmental election, and unauthorized contact and participation by an external member -- likely Samiian). And I doubt that there are many faculty members at Fresno State or anywhere else who care about such things for their own sake. So, it is entirely plausible that the person who alerted the Fresno State administration to these irregularities did so not because of a deep, dispassionate commitment to the faculty handbook, but because of more, shall we say, substantive concerns about how the search was progressing.

One could say, then, that the irregularities were a "pretext", in that nobody would have cared about such procedural failings had the search not been independently controversial. However, it is also fair to observe that the whole reason we have requirements of procedure is precisely to create confidence in faculty searches in circumstances where controversy is expected. Procedures like these matter most in circumstances where one might worry about efforts to "stack" a search committee or otherwise buttonhole it into a particular ideological or political box -- efforts almost certainly made easier when one circumvents normal requirements of faculty election and oversight. More to the point: It is wholly unsurprising that nobody cares about procedural defaults in cases that nobody cares about. We have procedural rules precisely for the cases that people do care about.

My comments in no way should be taken to impugn those persons who were selected as finalists and have gotten caught up in the middle of this controversy. I know nothing about them, and they may well be superb candidates whose virtues would be recognized by a search committee which was operating entirely above board. But surely we can be concerned with the celerity with which a very inside-baseball procedural dispute was elevated -- on the basis of virtually no evidence -- into a grand conspiracy of Jewish intimidation, and the ease with which many bought into it.

No comments: