An intriguing Cal Poly/Saudi project if you’re not a woman, Jewish, or gay
February 14, 2008
FIRST IN A CONTINUING SERIES: Cal Poly noir
By DANIEL BLACKBURN and KAREN VELIE
WANTED: Cal Poly engineering professors for cushy overseas assignment in upscale, sunny, beach-like environment; triple pay, enhanced Cal-PERS benefits, lots of quality living perks. Female, Jewish, and homosexual professors need not apply. Contact M. Noori. (Editor’s note: Irony ends here.)
For the past few months, Cal Poly Engineering College Dean Mohammad Noori has been advocating and helping craft a co-venture program with the Saudi Arabian government to develop an engineering school in a new Jubail university. The plan would utilize Cal Poly engineering professors and their expertise on-site in both academics and organization, to put in place an undergraduate engineering program at Jubail University College (JUC).
Following Noori’s announcement of the planned collaboration during a department meeting, a woman and a Jewish professor asked to apply. Both were told not to bother, said numerous Cal Poly engineering staff members.
“I don’t think our name should be involved in something that doesn’t allow women, Jews, and homosexuals,” said Cal Poly Mechanical Engineering Department Professor Frank Owen. “I think the issue is divisive within our faculty. I don’t see what good we get out of it.”
Work on the collaboration has continued despite a number of faculty roadblocks. The Mechanical Engineering Department voted on the controversy and a large majority of the faculty nixed the project.
“The project goes against the wishes of our faculty,” Owen added. “No one on the Cal Poly faculty wanted to go over.”
Cuesta College Engineering and Technology Division Chair Jeff Jones is the sole selection to represent Cal Poly at JUC.
The Jubail facility started operations a year ago and has 435 students, both male and female. But as Saudi practices do not allow instructors and students to be of different genders, the fledgling engineering department’s proposed exchange program with Cal Poly has been born into controversy.
Despite an early indication that women, Jews and gays would be unwelcome in the new program, its primary proponents — Cal Poly Engineering College Chair Gregg L. Fiegel and Noori — have persevered in their planning. The project is being designed to extend through summer 2012.
Female Saudi students will not be allowed to participate, either. Women are not allowed in the JUC’s engineering department, a circumstance appearing to conflict with Cal Poly’s policy of enhancing enrollment of women in its own engineering departments. Saudi law is particularly restrictive toward women; a rigid dress code is imposed, driving is prohibited, a man’s permission is needed for travel or to have surgery, and voting is for men only.
Fiegel, Noori and Assistant Dean Edward Sullivan have not yet responded to telephone and e-mail messages from UncoveredSLO.com.
Engineering Department Professor Jim LoCascio said he was recently told by Fiegel that “anyone can apply” for the program, but that the Saudis will be selecting the successful candidates, and no women, Jews or gays will be picked. But, added LoCascio, he did not think the program’s innovator, Fiegel, “set out to do anything evil in any way. I just don’t understand why Cal Poly didn’t hold out for a better deal” that would have included all professionally qualified candidates.
But the way the situation has evolved “is just crazy,” LoCascio said. “It’s a case of the spirit of the law versus the letter of the law.”
The issue has proved irritating to Cal Poly’s nationally-respected Society of Women Engineers, for five straight years rated by peers as “Best in the U.S.” Other engineering professors see a departure from the institution’s mission statement, which promises that Cal Poly will be “a flagship college of engineering that benefits humanity by educating socially responsible engineers inspired for life-long learning.”
Limitations placed on the program imposed by the Saudis, the possibility of which was originally noted by the campus newspaper Mustang Daily’s reporter Agnus-Dei Farrant last September, did not deter its proponents. In the months after the program’s initiation, controversy regarding the discriminatory limitations grew among Cal Poly engineering professors, and so did the level of departmental justification for continuing the plan.
When the issue was broached during a Cal Poly Academic Senate meeting, many thought the immediate response from President Warren Baker was inadequate.
So, in a six-page memo to Senate members in December, Academic Senate Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs William W. Durgin elaborated, hinting that the prohibitions, and Saudi law and custom, could simply be sidestepped:
“While Saudi practices limit delivery of instruction in the classroom to instructors of the same gender,” Durgin wrote, “nothing in the draft proposal, draft contract or discussions surrounding either, would otherwise preclude any Cal Poly faculty member or student from participating in project activities.”
Durgin continued: “We… assume that decisions about who participates will be determined by considerations of professional interest and qualification.” He noted that the program will “comply fully with university policy and federal and state law.”
He acknowledged that “initial enrollments in this program are to be limited to males.”
The program’s cost is estimated at $5.9 million, with the entire tab being paid by JUC. Additionally, Cal Poly’s proposal requires the Saudis to pay for “most on-site expenses in Jubail, such as visitor accommodations, local transportation, office expenses of Cal Poly representatives while at JUC, and facility, supply, and material expenses of on-site workshops and meetings.”
Noori and Fiegel were guests of the JUC campus and the Saudi government during a July journey to Jubail. Fiegel prepared a lengthy proposal for JUC, which then culled Cal Poly from a list including Purdue and Carnegie Mellon, according to the Mustang Daily.
Cal Poly also would be the recipient under the Jubail agreement of “additional resources from JUC to assist with program development, including funding for faculty and staff support,” wrote Fiegel in his proposal to JUC in September.
This suggests to some engineering professors that fundraising for cash-strapped Cal Poly is at the heart of the Saudi deal.
“There’s no doubt about that,” said LoCascio. “There’s a huge amount of money in this for Cal Poly. And who’s going to turn up their nose at that kind of money?”
Other concerns with the JUC project haven’t yet been addressed by college bosses, some professors contend. These include an agreement that Jubail graduates will receive a Cal Poly degree, creating worries that Cal Poly’s reputation will be put at risk.
According to the agreement, Cal Poly will also exchange students and staff with JUC, enroll JUC graduates in Cal Poly’s graduate programs, and conduct joint research with Saudi Arabia’s local industrial sector.
Professors who participate in the program in Jubail will receive pay inflated as much as three times their stateside check. Originally, this higher salary total could have been applied to computations by CalPERS, the state retirement system, which uses a formula including final-year salaries to arrive at eventual pension benefit levels. But LoCascio said such “spiking” is illegal and he told Cal Poly officials so. The higher salaries will not count toward retirement.
Also vexing some enginpeering personnel is a requirement that participating department chairpersons allocate 30 percent of their time toward administration of the collaboration, causing some professors to question the program’s tangible value to Cal Poly students and departments.
Of the Jubail project, Owen observed: “It has stirred up a hornets’ nest.”