Faculty members at the USC Annenberg School for Communications are deep into a controversy that should be of interest to the Jewish community.
It concerns a proposal from USC for a $3 million contract for Annenberg to work with the American University in Dubai to create a journalism and communications school in the Middle Eastern nation.
Some on the USC faculty are concerned that Dubai, part of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), will discriminate against student applicants and faculty who are not Muslim, including Jews. Critics also cite past United Arab Emirate opposition to Israel.
What makes this of interest to local Jews — even those not connected to the home of the Trojans — is the close connection USC has forged with the Jewish community over the years. The Jewish presence among students, faculty and the board of trustees is strong, USC’s Hillel is bustling and the university also has the Casden Institute for the Study of the Jewish Role in American Life, which works with the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, as well as the Shoah Visual History Foundation. In addition, Jews are among USC’s financial supporters.
The current university is far different than the old anti-Semitic USC. That era was recalled in a 1996 article by The Jewish Journal’s Tom Tugend, who described the school’s pre-World War II quota system that was “strikingly simple. One Jewish student was admitted to the medical school, one to the dental school and one to the law school.”
Today, Jewish faculty members are divided over the Dubai proposal. “So many of the people involved in this are Jewish,” said Ed Cray, a veteran journalism professor.
According to a proposed memorandum of understanding, Annenberg would receive $1 million a year for three years to provide the American University and its Mohammed bin Rashid School for Communication with curriculum advice and faculty assistance. Annenberg would also work with its Dubai partner to set up an international conference center and think tank there.
The memorandum states that neither USC nor the Rashid school would “discriminate on the basis of race, religion, gender, color, age, physical or mental disability, national origin, veteran status, marital status or any other category protected by law in employment or in any of its programs and/or activities.” But it’s unclear how this clause would be enforced.
Annenberg dean Ernest J. Wilson III told me that USC will be “providing training to a significant part of the journalists who will be distributing information all through the Middle East and into India.”
Annenberg professor Philip Seib, principal director of the project, said in an article on the Annenberg Web site, “The news business is much less mature in Arab countries…. We’re eager to contribute to the enhancement of journalistic fundamentals … by fostering appreciation of American journalism values — everything from ethics to professional production skills….”
Faculty critics with long memories recall a proposal in the 1970s for a USC Middle East Studies Center financed entirely, Tugend reported, “by Arab oil money.” The Jewish community, fearing creation of a nest of pro-Arab, anti-Israel academics, protested, and the proposal was killed.
A vocal opponent of the Dubai plan is professor Jonathan Kotler, who was joined by a half-dozen colleagues. He told me he was concerned about UAE support for the PLO and its “civil rights record … in its treatment of foreigners, women, children and gays….” And he noted that Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, ruler of Dubai, has been sued for forcing young boys into slavery to serve as jockeys in the popular sport of camel racing. The Dubai communications school was named for him.
“I don’t think we should get into bed with such a person,” he said, and he believes the proposal “besmirches the name of the university and the Annenberg school.” He was particularly concerned about past United Arab Emirate support for the Palestine Liberation Organization, which he considers a supporter of jihad and terrorism.
“As a Jewish American, I am offended,” he said.
Murray Fromson, an emeritus journalism professor and a longtime foreign correspondent for the Associated Press and CBS, sees it differently.
Fromson, who every year visits his daughter Aliza Ben-Tal, assistant to the president of Ben-Gurion University, in Israel, told me this is not a Jewish issue unless Dubai discriminates against Jews or academics who are involved in communications programs in Israel. “It’s a Jewish issue if we start a program in Israel and they [Dubai officials] say we can’t do it,” Fromson said.
He said his years as a reporter overseas taught him the value of such programs, a view that was reinforced when he headed a USC program in Mexico, in the days when the PRI political party clamped down on dissent in a brutal way, and the government bribed the press.
His students there learned about a free press. “Two of our students were among those who got the National Assembly to adopt a First Amendment [free press guarantee],” he said.
I’ve taught at Annenberg on and off for several years. As a part-time Trojan, here’s what I think:
Like Fromson, I believe a program such as this can do much good, even in a country with a poor human rights record. But USC should insist on ironclad anti-discrimination clauses in the contract to prevent the Arab rulers of Dubai from discriminating against Jews and other non-Muslims.