A leaked e-mail conversation between Cal Poly officials regarding the proposed faculty exchange between Cal Poly’s College of Engineering and Jubail University College (JUC) in Saudi Arabia detailed the apparent concern to push the controversial deal through before “the Saudis lose patience.”

The e-mail dialogue between CENG Associate Dean Ed Sullivan, Cal Poly Grants Development Director Xenia Bixler, Cal Poly Provost Bill Durgin, and Dean of Research and Graduate Programs Susan Opava was apparently inadvertently attached to an unrelated e-mail sent to all Cal Poly engineering faculty on May 16. A faculty member, who wishes to remain anonymous, also forwarded the e-mail to the Mustang Daily.

In the first e-mail in that trail, addressed to Opava and Durgin on May 15, Bixler talked about the complications of writing a contract in both English and Arabic, and noted that Cal Poly’s legal counsel had advised that the college “refrain from signing the English version until … satisfied with the Arabic contract since this is the version that prevails should there be a dispute.”

Bixler then continued, speaking to the issue – the alleged exclusion of female, homosexual and Jewish faculty – that has made the proposed exchange so controversial from the beginning.

Bixler wrote:
I have not asked the question whether female advisors or visitors are required to stay within the “female branch” when at the JUC, if this precludes them in participating in the engineering curriculum development, or if this only limits them from teaching in a mixed audience. Should I move forward on this question, edit the language, or are we accepting as is? I hate to be a pest but I know the Saudis are losing patience with us.

Sullivan responded to Bixler on the same day:
Thanks for trying to nudge this along. I totally agree that the Saudis are losing patience and the loss of another full week is discouraging (it’s already the weekend over there). I understand that (Cal Poly’s on-site legal counsel) Carlos Cordova has been asked to ruminate over the latest version (especially the “male versus female branch” phrasing) and hopefully he’ll say he’s okay with it today. I really, really hope we can avoid asking for a clarification of this phrasing and simply tell them we’re ready to sign. I’m quite afraid that another round of “pickiness” on our part could be the proverbial straw on the camel’s back.

Bixler wrote back to Sullivan:
I feel not only (CENG Dean) Mohammad (Noori)‘s, (but also) yours and our engineering department’s credibility is at stake here. I am sure the RC (Saudi Arabia Royal Commission) is more used to dealing with responsive, profit-motivated contractors rather than academics. I know they see me as the person stalling this agreement, which is okay (it is my job to cover all the bases and preserve your relationship with the program director) but maybe you can convince Mohammad to also place a call to Bill (Durgin) so we can resolve and have a way ahead.

In the last leaked conversation in that May 15 e-mail, Sullivan wrote to Bixler:
I think Bill (Durgin) is pretty sensitive to the high level of annoyance that’s been created among our Saudi contacts… Unfortunately, this week someone decided that Carlos (Cordova) needed to look at the thing and this has delayed matters more than it should.

In a later interview, Sullivan said the attachment of the confidential e-mail was an “oversight” on his part and “just one of those things that happens when you send a lot of emails.”

He said that while it was his own blunder that his conversation with Bixler got attached to the e-mail sent to all engineering faculty, he was also disappointed that the e-mail was further made public by some of those faculty members.

“There is phrasing in there that is not intended for the public.”

However, given that the e-mail has now been made public – first to engineering faculty, and then when published last week on UncoveredSLO.com – Sullivan said he feels the e-mail “really shows how long and hard we’re working to make a good contract.”

“The only thing I see of news value is that it shows the amount of effort that goes into making a good contract, and some private frustration,” he continued.

“There is that fear about the Saudis losing patience with us,” he acknowledged.

Sullivan said that Cal Poly officials had originally hoped to have the contract finalized by early 2008.

Since the proposal for the collaboration was first prepared in January 2007, there have been numerous open forums to discuss the topic, several student protests, a petition circulated to have student opinions on the matter be considered, and a rejected Academic Senate resolution opposing the project.

The contention surrounding the proposed $5.9 million contract mainly stems from critics’ concerns that female, Jewish or homosexual faculty may not be welcomed by the Saudis to participate in the development of their new engineering program.

Various Cal Poly officials, including Opava and Cal Poly President Warren Baker, have publicly negated those concerns at the open forums, stating that Cal Poly will not sign a deal that violates United States anti-discrimination employment laws.

They have not gone on to elaborate on how such an exchange would then take place in the context of Saudi society, which still segregates men from women in many public situations including universities.

Opava said the deadline to complete the contract with is open-ended, but that Cal Poly was “supposed to be providing something (to JUC) by September.”

“If the contract was delayed, we’d have to postpone the start date of the program,” Opava said.

Opava said that the current delay is simply because Cal Poly is waiting for the Arabic translation to be sent, so that it can be reviewed by Arabic-speaking attorneys.

Opava said she could not discuss the specific language of the anti-discrimination clause that would be in the final contract, but that it will be “similar to what was said in the open forums” regarding the proposed deal.

She said the language would state that Cal Poly would select the faculty it sends over to Saudi Arabia, but that JUC will have the final say on those selections. The clause will state that JUC can only reject Cal Poly faculty on grounds of qualifications.

Asked if she foresees a problem with women or minorities being allowed to participate, Opava responded, “Not as far as I can see.”

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