The famously self-righteous field of Middle East studies, which lambasts outside criticism as “censorship” and condemns America, Israel, and the West while lauding Islamists, now finds itself on the defensive. Two of its leading lights, the University of California, Berkeley’s Nezar AlSayyad and the University of California, Los Angeles’s Gabriel Piterberg, have been accused of sexually harassing female graduate students.
In October, UC Berkeley concluded an investigation, finding that, between 2012 and 2014, AlSayyad, who chairs the Center for Middle Eastern Studies (CMES) and teaches architecture, built a relationship, including frequent social invitations and hugs, with graduate student Eva Hagberg Fisher in an effort to “groom” her. A car ride during which he put his hand on her thigh and proposed a trip together to Las Vegas was the final straw.
The report found that AlSayyad isolated the student from other professors and was on the exam committee whose approval was required for her to complete her dissertation. He also edited a journal in which many students hoped to be published.
The San Francisco Chronicle reports that two other students complained about AlSayyad’s conduct, including one who filed a complaint in April alleging they had sex over twenty years ago under similar circumstances.
While AlSayyad denies the charges, the investigation upheld Hagberg Fisher’s claims and the university suspended him for a semester.
Berkeley graduate students, upset at the university for its initial silence, expressed their disapproval by walking out of AlSayyad’s section, protesting outside his department, and marching across campus chanting, “Protect Students, Not Tenure.” They have the option of completing one of his required courses with a new instructor.
Some current and former students sent a letter to Berkeley’s administration defending AlSayyad and asking that the university “withhold judgement” until the investigation has concluded. Transforming the Egyptian-born AlSayyad into the victim, the signatories asserted an atmosphere of “increased conflicts and racist sentiments” could lead to a rush to judgement, “especially when the subject is being identified in the news as a Middle East scholar.” It’s little wonder he claimed earlier, “I actually feel terribly victimized.”
The case of UCLA history professor and former Center for Near Eastern Studies director Gabriel Piterberg is even more abhorrent. In September, UCLA settled with two graduate students who sued the university in 2015 for taking insufficient action and for discouraging them from filing formal complaints against Piterberg, whom they alleged had repeatedly sexually harassed and assaulted them over a period of years.
Piterberg had served as one of the student’s dissertation advisor, while the other had to work in the same building with him. His position on the departmental funding committee forced her to seek funds outside of the history department.
UCLA’s settlement with Piterberg fined him $3,000, ordered him not to meet with his students in his office with the door closed, required him to attend sexual harassment training, and suspended him for one academic quarter.
The university’s leniency sparked student protests, faculty outcry, and a petition demanding his dismissal. Another petition calling for his removal from the European University Institute in Florence, Italy led to his resignation as a visiting scholar.
Piterberg, a boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) advocate and an “anti-war” activist, has made a career of falsely accusing Israel and the U.S. of doing what he himself is guilty of: taking advantage of a weaker party. He has vehemently opposed outside criticism of academe — little wonder given his own behavior.
While AlSayyad has spoken out against attempts to utilize government funding to reform Middle East studies, he doesn’t share Piterberg’s blatantly politicized biased approach to scholarship. His influence behind the scenes, however, has been problematic, particularly his role in procuring a $5 million donation from the Sultan bin Abdulaziz Al Saud Foundation for UC Berkeley’s Sultan Program in Arab Studies.
Graduate students are extremely vulnerable to the demands of their professors, including their politics, methodology, and opinions of other scholars. Yet these two full professors at prestigious institutions violated the fundamental tenets of their scholarly vocation and behaved not just deplorably, but illegally toward students entrusted to their care.
The field of Middle East studies, rightly condemned for its politicized scholarship, displays its moral rot. Sanctimonious pronouncements from such quarters should be disregarded accordingly.
Cinnamon Stillwell is the West Coast Representative for Campus Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum. She can be reached at email@example.com.