As campus-wide concern about the yet-to-be finalized and controversial contract between Cal Poly’s College of Engineering and Jubail University College (JUC) in Saudi Arabia mounts, students are taking action to ensure their voice on the matter gets heard.

A petition requesting for an open forum between Cal Poly students, the Academic Senate and university administrators was circulated in the University Union this week, and presented at the Associated Student Inc. Board of Directors meeting later in the day.

The petition, which circulated for six hours, gathered 120 signatures in support of such a forum, according to Christina Chiappe, Cal Poly College Republicans president and one of the organizers of the petition.

“I’d like to emphasize that this petition has unified several groups that often are not in agreement,” Chiappe told the board, adding that the Cal Poly College Republicans, Cal Poly Democrats, College Libertarians of Cal Poly, and College of Liberal Arts Student Council had all signed on in support.

The proposed deal between Cal Poly and JUC has been met with heated contention ever since it became public in fall 2007, but students have yet to be given a chance to speak with university officials about their concerns.

“We as students have valid concerns about the proposed partnership,” said business junior Ari Dekofsky at Wednesday’s meeting.

The controversy surrounding the proposal mainly stems from concerns that female, Jewish or homosexual faculty would not be welcomed by the Saudis to participate in the development of their new engineering program.

“Due to Saudi Arabia’s presiding facets of Shariah law, including enforced segregation of the sexes, there is strong evidence to support the statement that there will be restrictions on program participants and activities of program participants based on characteristics such as gender, religion, and sexual orientation. By entering into a contract with JUC, Cal Poly may not be fulfilling its commitments to diversity and anti-discrimination,” the student petition noted.

Legally, Cal Poly must adhere to state and federal laws that prohibit employment discrimination, and various administrators have repeatedly said Cal Poly will not sign a contract that discriminates on any of those characteristics, but have not elaborated on how such an exchange would take place in the context of Saudi society.

“I commend the efforts of the students that have done this (petition),” said ASI President Brandon Souza. Although he said he would eagerly facilitate an open forum between students and administrators to discuss the matter, Souza declined to express an opinion on the exchange proposal until the student body has had a chance to voice an opinion.

In a heated Academic Senate meeting last week, Susan Opava, dean of research and graduate programs, said that Cal Poly and JUC were still in negotiations, and that no contract had yet been finalized.

“I find it very interesting that nobody has seen the contract yet,” said CLA board member Angela Kramer at Wednesday’s meeting. “I think it would be very necessary that that contract, signed or not-signed, be brought to the (open-forum) meeting.”

Jim LoCascio, mechanical engineering professor and member of the Academic Senate, voiced his opposition to the proposal, saying that not only is the proposed contract discriminatory, it would also take away valuable resources from Cal Poly, with modest returns.

Last month, LoCascio proposed a senate resolution opposing the Saudi project, but the executive committee of the Academic Senate voted not to take up the matter as represented.

The proposal to secure a contract for Cal Poly to assist JUC in developing and implementing its engineering school was first prepared in January 2007 by faculty in Cal Poly’s College of Engineering.

Cal Poly was chosen at that time from a list of other American universities to assist JUC with the implementation of a new bachelor’s degree program in civil engineering. JUC later requested that Cal Poly assist them not only in the implementation of the new civil engineering program, but also programs in mechanical, electrical and computer engineering which will be developed in subsequent years.

The five-year contract with JUC is valued at $5.9 million, which covers both the estimated $4.6 million in direct overhead costs, (such as salaries and wages for faculty, supplies and equipment, and airfare costs) and $1.3 million in indirect costs. Cal Poly offered the indirect costs – the actual money Cal Poly would be taking in from such a deal – to the Saudis at the rate of 30 percent of overhead, compared to the normal 40 percent rate. The 10 percent discount for JUC apparently came about during negotiations between the two schools.

The still-pending agreement between Cal Poly and JUC is part of a larger push by the Saudi government to expand the country’s undergraduate engineering education. UC Berkeley and Stanford recently signed similar deals with King Abdullah University in Saudi Arabia, although in that contract each school will each get nearly $30 million, and women and minorities would be allowed to participate.

“I just don’t understand why Cal Poly didn’t also hold out for a better deal like that,” said LoCascio in an earlier interview.

Students at Wednesday’s petition presentation apparently felt the same way.

“I believe that any agreement with a university or organization that teaches hatred towards any group, specifically my Jewish friends or their Jewish professors, is an unethical decision,” said Brian Crawford, an architectural engineering student and member of Hillel of Cal Poly.

“How can (students) change this?” Kramer asked LoCascio.

“The only thing you can do is get enough people to say this is a bad idea,” he answered.

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