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Controversial Class Canceled

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Illustration by Easle Seo

In Fall 2010, SAIC’s Liberal Arts department announced that it would begin a restructuring process. As a result, some classes were cancelled in order to create room for new ones. During this structural shift, Roxane Assaf, who taught the “Communication Theory” and “Palestine/Israel: US Media Myths” courses in the department, was fired. Upset by this decision, many of Assaf’s ex-students wrote a petition directed to Lisa Wainright, SAIC Vice President of Academic Affairs and Dean of Faculty, to have “Palestine/Israel: US Media Myths” reinstated. With over 150 signatures to date, the petition expresses a concern that classes discussing this conflict with a perspective critical of U.S. foreign policy are being subject to censorship.

Student evaluations for Assaf’s “Israel/Palestine: US Media Myths” class in Spring 2010 indicate that students responded well to Assaf and her teaching methods. Only one negative comment was found, alluding to a “lack of structure” in the course. The rest are positive responses to both the material and the teacher: “One of the more enlightening courses I’ve ever taken,” said one evaluation, while another stated, “She was great, a total badass who knew her stuff.”

Raja Halwani, former Chair of the Liberal Arts department, spoke with F Newsmagazine about Assaf’s dismissal. He explained the department is interested in offering more history and anthropology classes, and that, in consequence, they needed to sacrifice some classes that didn’t fit into these classifications.

“Roxane doesn’t have a degree in history, and her class is related to media studies more than to social studies,” he said. As far as the influence student evaluations have on the department’s decision to continue offering a class, “they are just one tool the department uses to take this kind of decisions,” Halwani explained. “No one is saying she was a bad teacher.” So was Assaf fired for political reasons? “I don’t think so. I don’t think Paul Ashley would do that, but I don’t know. You should talk to him.”

F Newsmagazine requested an interview with Paul Ashley, current Chair of the Liberal Arts department. The request was denied.

Assaf talked with F about her firing. “Before I received word of my dismissal, I experienced a private meeting on September 29 with the new Liberal Arts chair, Paul Ashley, who wondered aloud if popular professors could exert undue influence on students. He asked me how I felt about being a rock star with the power to brainwash, and if I wasn’t, perhaps, running some sort of ‘Dead Poets Society’ at the school,” she said.

“They canceled both of my classes, the other being ‘Communication Theory’ — a course many students critique as one of the few academic courses offered at their prestigious art school,” she continued. “Paul Ashley noted that Noam Chomsky, Karl Marx and Robert McChesney were on my syllabus. He wanted to know if they all agreed with each other, and why I thought Marx was important to study,” she said. “I said that I offer criticism for each theory that I introduce, and encourage them [the students] to formulate their own criticisms of everything I require that they learn. Furthermore, I introduce thinkers whose ideas contradict those three,” she concluded.

On December 3, Assaf had her part-time faculty review with Paul Ashley and members from the Liberal Arts and Visual and Critical Studies (VCS) departments. “After the previous meeting with Ashley, I already felt that I was not desirable anymore,” she said. “Nevertheless, I attended the part-timer interview ready to impress all the department heads. I wanted my job. The heads of Social Science and VCS, with whom I had met in previous semesters, had granted me scores of 9/10 and 10/10 respectively, based on their own judgments and student evaluations,” she stated.

As for the content of the interview, Assaf explained that “Ashley eventually took the meeting into a very specific line of questioning on why I thought European and Israeli media generally produced better coverage than the U.S. on the Israel/Palestine conflict. I said, because they offer more context, use more accurate language, and are more referential to international law.”

Two days after her part-time review on December 5, Assaf got a letter from Ashley informing her of the decision to dismiss her. “They said my classes didn’t fit into the new categories they defined for the department,” she said. Taking the suggestion of VCS Chair Jim Elkins, she tried to get hired by the Visual Communications Design (VCD) department. “After this, I was just trying to defend my Communication Theory class. I looked for an opportunity with VCD. They said that the description of the class looked very valuable to our students, but unless it was cross-listed with another department, they could not take it.”

When Assaf was asked about recent trends of dismissing professors who imparted political ideas similar to hers, she said, “Well, a school will never say they fired someone for political reasons.”

The Trend

In recent years, there has been a clear pattern of U.S. educational institutions dismissing teachers who, like Assaf, were critical of U.S. foreign policies towards the Palestine-Israel conflict.

An especially controversial case was that of political scientist Norman Finkelstein, whose primary fields of research are the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the politics of the Holocaust, and who was denied tenure at Chicago’s DePaul University in 2007. The decision came after a public battle with university officials and Alan Dershowitz, a Harvard law professor and fervent supporter of Israel. Despite consistently receiving the highest student evaluations in his department, publishing five critically acclaimed books from leading scholars that have been translated into 46 languages, and being an internationally-recognized scholar in his field, Finkelstein did not receive tenure. On September 5, 2007, Finkelstein announced his resignation.

An official statement from DePaul said that Finkelstein did not meet the requirements for tenure, and that outside influence played no role in the decision. Furthermore, DePaul praised Finkelstein “as a prolific scholar and outstanding teacher.” Finkelstein, however, said the decision was based on “transparently political grounds” and was an “egregious violation” of intellectual freedom.

Donald Wagner, Middle Eastern studies professor at North Park University in Chicago, was fired last year after working in the school for 15 years. An activist for Palestinian human rights and director of North Park’s Center of Middle Eastern Studies (CMES), Wagner was popular with students, but controversial within the evangelical Christian university’s larger community. Student leaders and faculty members started a petition — which eventually had more than 500 signatures, including some from members of North Park’s board of trustees — to rehire Wagner as an adjunct professor. But on May 18, after negotiations with faculty members, North Park announced that it would not rehire Wagner. School administrators have cited financial pressures as the reason for Wagner’s departure.

In an email interview with F, Wagner said, “There are a number of pro-Israel organizations in the U.S. that monitor faculty who take up justice for the Palestinians, even when those faculty present a balanced and honest approach to this controversial topic. Faculty who do not have tenure are most vulnerable, but others are harassed and monitored as well.”

He continued, “Groups like ‘Campus Watch,’ and some Hillel organizations, have as their agenda the silencing of honest and open presentation of factual analysis that might be critical of Israel. In essence, it is an attempt to control the discourse on the topic, which is an infringement of academic freedom and free speech.”

This trend constitutes a major concern among experts on the subject. Rashid Khalidi, Edward Said Professor of Modern Arab Studies at Columbia University, told F that “there is a distinct unwillingness to hear points of view that differ from the dominant pro-Israeli narrative about the Middle East, which extends to efforts to censor any such views and to eliminate them from academic discourse.” When asked about how this trend affects students, he responded, “It is important that students have access to as broad a range as possible of sources of information and of points of view, and that they not be restricted in this regard.

“This requires vigilance,” Khalidi continued, “as there are those who are determined that only one version of what is happening in the Middle East be available to students. Given how important this region is, this does an enormous disservice to students and to citizens of this country, who deserve to know what is really happening in that vital part of the world.”

The Liberal Arts department’s decision to cancel the class “Palestine/Israel: US Media Myths,” and to dismiss Roxane Assaf as a teacher, leaves SAIC in a position similar to DePaul and North Park universities.

All three universities have fired or denied tenure to extremely popular, and internationally recognized professors who taught about this conflict. And even if SAIC’s decision to do so wasn’t motivated by politics, students aren’t happy about the curricular changes — and they’re speaking out for what they believe are vital components of their academic experience.

8 Responses to Controversial Class Canceled

  1. […] you go to SAIC, sign the petition! It’s still being passed around. Background story here. Tags Chicago, saic, school of the art institute Categories Personal LikeBe the first to like […]

  2. I am saddened, but not shocked, to learn of the firing of Roxane Assaf. I know her as a brilliant actress and also see her a couple times each year at peace marches.. She has a very sharp mind, is obviously articulate– but she is anything but dogmatic or close-minded. She enjoys discussion, is witty and good humored. The only reason I wrote “but not shocked” is that I see many signs of a new McCarthyism and of virulent Xenophobia throughout our culture and political life. Does the School want teachers with no point of view, without positions, unwilling to challenge students?? I thought the whole plan of education was to challenge and be challenged, to confront differences of experience and viewpoint, to rethink and relearn and reformulate. To overcome our personal prejudices and provincialisms and to expand our understand of the human experience. The firing of Assaf is deeply disappointing. I expected better from SAIC.
    John Pitman Weber, MFA 1968, Professor of Art, Elmhurst College

  3. Caroline Herzenberg says:

    I agree fully with the preceding comments by John Weber. I also see Roxane Assaf occasionally at peace and justice activities, and admire her greatly. What a loss SAIC has brought upon itself by firing her; she should be reinstated immediately.
    Caroline Herzenberg; former faculty member IIT, UIC, CalState Fresno.

  4. kelly says:

    they accuse art students of being lazy, uninformed, apathetic, apolitical…and then actively eliminate classes that would empower, stir passion, and inform.

    academic freedom is being challenged at saic. and without student government–at the least–how are we to assert the power that we actually have?

  5. Maria says:

    There is also a recent tendency to hire instructors that blather on ad nauseam about terrorism and Islamic extremism. For instance, after the resignation of Dr. Finkelstein, DePaul hired Khalil Marrar, who published a book arguing that there is a very powerful Arab lobby that cancels out the power of the Zionist lobby in the U.S. I am wondering if there is a single Palestinian anywhere who feels the Saudi Arabian lobby represents his viewpoint. Another on of Dr. Marrar’s publications is Jihad and the American Creed. You can find Dr. Marrar quoted on a number of different anti- Muslim, ultra- Zionist websites. Campus Watch is apparently doing a good job. It may be helpful to consider not just those who are dismissed from their positions, but also those who replace them.

  6. anonymous says:

    thanks for quoting my evaluation, f-news. she was extremely talented at engaging student interest, and had an immense level of understanding about communication, the media, and how to get through to artists.

    i do not think there is much weight oh the argument of politics. raja believes in palestinian freedom as well, but he does not talk about it in a school setting. i doubt he would sacrifice his beliefs unless raja’s truly powerless and didn’t want to put himself in a difficult position, which i can also understand, and we should all respect.

    bless people like roxanne, her fiery spirit, her immense talent, and her mercy/patient for the directionless students. i admire her, and i do believe that there is a wonderful future for her. perhaps SAIC is just going down the tubes, and she is lucky to get out when she did.

  7. Sharon says:

    To Marla:
    You wrote that Khalil Marrar was hired to replace Norm Finkelstein and insinuated that his scholarship is meant to support zionism and discredit critism of the Pro-Israel lobby. I suggest you have neither read the book, since this is a malicious and false characterization of his central argument, nor do you understand that he was a Depaul faculty member well before Finkelstein’s unfortunate departure. Marrar writes that the Arab-American lobby, though mostly concerned with civil liberties issues of Arab and Muslim Americans, has increasingly gained a credible voice in foreign policy circles as American public opinion shifted toward support of a two state solution. Nowhere does he suggest that “a very powerful Arab lobby…cancels out the power of the Zionist lobby in the U.S.,” and in fact he includes a chapter on the power of the Pro-Israel lobby. Himself a Palestinian-American, it is offensive to suggest that he would agree with, let alone write that “the Saudi Arabian lobby represents his viewpoint.” If you are going to publicly impugn someone’s character, I suggest you at least take the time to read his argument. And while I abhor the tactics of Campus Watch, the suggestion that all scholarship that is not overtly activist is somehow meant to support unjust power relations is guilty of the same Us Vs Them mentality.

  8. Roxane Assaf Lynn says:

    As the part-timer featured in this F Newsmagazine piece, and in light of the passion with which the commenters responded, I am long overdue to respond with warm public gratitude to those who raised their voices in support of my work specifically and my rights generally.

    It was a painful time to be separated from SAIC, having also lost my full-time job at another institution of higher learning when grant funding ran out for my administrative post. My reflex was to curl up and lick wounds. But the student journalist who reached out to me showed me there was a willingness to shine a light in the shadows — the very value I was hoping to instill in my students.

    Students informed me that the petitions they had crafted and circulated (without my knowledge) eventually garnered hundreds of signatures, humbling me with emotions I still cannot describe. I had casual opportunity to offer in-person thank-yous to a handful of students who I learned later had been centrally involved in the effort. But I feel there are too many nameless others who should have gotten at least my nod. The same goes for faculty administrators who confirmed my report of exchanges in meetings and interviews.

    Additionally, I thank Lisa Wainwright for quickly acting on the matter when she learned of it from the F Newsmagazine article — after all the conversations, interviews, meetings, petitions, lay-offs, etc, had already transpired. While my students were rightly disappointed that their convictions and the weight of their numbers were never taken as a cue to reverse the Department Chair’s decision, I was able to offer my Intro to Journalism class to New Arts Journalism for the upcoming year and have been teaching it at SAIC ever since.

    Should SAIC every decide to permit me to teach “Palestine/Israel: US Media Myths Dispelled” again, I would accept without reservation. And I would hope word of it got out to my former students and all whose lives they touched with their ardent petitioning. They would deserve to know that their steadfastness and actions were rewarded.

    Given the nature and substance of my popular course in media criticism, it would be remiss not to offer kudos also to F Newsmagazine for being among the few publications daring to challenge the prevailing narrative by publishing the story of what happened to me, and more famously to Norman Finkelstein and Don Wagner. And that list grows on.

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