Professor denied tenure alleges procedural irregularities, violation of academic freedom
When the University confirmed its decision to deny tenure to the hugely well-respected Arab Studies professor Samer Shehata last February, both his former students and other scholars found it hard to believe. Shehata has now hired a lawyer and sharpened his allegations in a recent article by Inside Higher Ed.
By the time of his tenure hearing, Shehata was widely regarded as a leading public intellectual on the Arabic world. In a few years, he had been interviewed 600 times by different publications—most notably, by the Colbert Report, though he made the rounds on many other highly respectable outlets as well. Along with three books and good amount of peer reviewed articles, it seemed like he would achieve tenure.
But no. The School of Foreign Service faculty voted 25 to 13, with six abstentions in favor of granting his tenure. The University-wide committee, however, denied his application based on the “rigor, quality and inadequate rate of peer-reviewed scholarly publications,” according to information provided to Inside Higher Ed from Shehata’s lawyers. Once an appeal was rejected, the decision was final.
Shehata has since accepted a tenured position at the University of Oklahoma but he hasn’t given up trying to seek “justice” in his case. He’s hired a lawyer, and both the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee and the Council on American-Islamic Relations have sent letters to Georgetown on Shehata’s behalf. Although he’s filed a formal complaint, which is still active, he hasn’t filed a lawsuit.
According to Shehata, every review leading up to the denial of his application was “stellar” and his colleagues suggested no ways in which he could improve his application. In addition, he alleges that, in the written summaries of outside reviewers’ assessments of his work, his accomplishments were unfairly understated. For instance, even though an outside reviewer called his body of work “small but highly original,” the summary of the report provided to the committee merely called it “small.” And even though Shehata was interviewed by various news sources, his appearance on the Colbert Report was the only one singled out, which he calls “damaging.”
The professor, who is a vocal advocate of Palestine, attributes his tenure denial to political motives of his colleagues. “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 told Inside Higher Ed. “Some [SFS] 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.’”
Georgetown professor emeritus Michael Hudson, who once co-taught with Shehata suggested Shehata’s support of Israel played into his tenure denial: “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.”
Though the decision could have been more related to academic disagreements. While Shehata’s contribution to the interdisciplinary field of Arab Studies is without question, the Government Department judged his work on the guidelines for political science, which is more mixed. His work was predominantly ethnographic and didn’t rely as much on quantitative rational choice theories favored by political science theorists.
Still, Shehata says, the University failed to tell him that his work was deficient. Inside Higher Ed reports that the job market is tough for interdisciplinarians like Samer Shehata. Cash strapped think-tanks like the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies are at the mercy of academic departments when it comes to hiring.
For Shehata lovers (of which there are at least 286), Vox is sure he’ll land on his feet. Georgetown’s “denial of my tenure and termination of my employment will not affect my dedication to my students or deter me from teaching future generations of students about the Middle East,” he previously told Vox. “I will continue to research, write, and teach about Egypt and the Middle East.”
Photo: Colbert Report