Cal Poly students voiced their concerns over a potential faculty exchange program on Thursday in a town hall-style meeting that featured a six-member panel, including Cal Poly President Warren Baker.

“Such programs have been a part of Cal Poly for many years,” Baker said. “We need to be sure that such programs are forward-looking and allow for significant opportunities to hasten the development of our own engineering programs.”

At issue is the controversial proposed faculty exchange program between Cal Poly and Jubail University College (JUC) in Saudi Arabia. Many of the concerns originate with the conservative nature of Saudi culture, whereby men and women are taught in separate classrooms and certain religions and sexual orientations are still considered taboo.

Political science junior Angela Kramer voiced such sentiments by likening separate classrooms for the sexes to the “separate but equal” doctrine that governed America for almost a century. Both students and the panel participated in the response.

“Someone has to cross the bridge, but you can’t cross it with arrogance or hostility,” said Lori Atwater, a general engineering junior. “We have to engage them with humility, and they have to want to ask questions of us. We can’t assume that our way is the best way.”

“Promoting our views is a gradual process that won’t be adopted overnight,” added Dean Mohammad Noori of the College of Engineering. “It took us over 200 years to realize that such a doctrine doesn’t work, and we’re still combating taboos against gays that just started to go away 30 years ago. We have to use a combination of engagement, dialogue, patience and effort.”

Another provocative issue was addressed when a student pointed out that the engineering program taught by Cal Poly could help develop weapons, which pose a danger to the U.S. when in the hands of autocratic Saudi Arabia.

“I believe that an educated citizenry is better than an ignorant citizenry,” Provost William Durgin responded. “It could be used for such purposes, but it could also be used to pursue other interests, perhaps in the biomedical fields. The value of education outweighs the possible threats that come along with it.”

“So you’re essentially saying that you’re not worried about it?” the student asked.

“I feel that, while technology could be used to hurt us, it probably would be used to help us,” Durgin responded after a laugh.

The panel addressed the chief issue of whether the societal norms in Saudi Arabia would lead to a discriminatory faculty selection process for the project, as well as possible discrimination whilse working in Saudi Arabia.

Panelists noted that the proposed contract includes a termination clause that would be triggered should JUC reject any faculty for anything other than normal performance criteria. The faculty selected for the project would undergo the normal, nondiscriminatory selection process, and go to Saudi Arabia to assist in a non-teaching capacity.

The panel also recommended that any Jewish or homosexual faculty sent abroad should conduct themselves in a discreet fashion and not overly “flaunt” such characteristics. They also recommended following U.S. state department directives of observing Saudi customs.

The panel finished the session by affirming their commitment to ensuring that any faculty sent abroad be safely housed, cared for, and kept free from discrimination.

“There’s enormous value in having an environment with people of diverse perspectives,” said Ed Sullivan, associate dean for the College of Engineering. “Nothing will change if we don’t; the U.S. global education enterprise doesn’t reach out and engage other countries. We have to be informal ambassadors.”

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