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Open Letter to the University of California, Irvine

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Open Letter to the University of California, Irvine

We write to you to express our concern regarding the initiative to establish four endowed chairs at the University of California, Irvine: the Thakkar Family-Dharma Civilization Foundation Presidential Chair in Vedic and Indic Civilization Studies, the Dhan Kaur Sahota Presidential Chair in Sikh Studies, Shri Parshvanath Presidential Chair in Jain Studies, and the Swami Vivekananda-Dharma Civilization Foundation Presidential Chair in Modern India Studies.

While such endowments have the potential to greatly enhance the study of South Asia, we are troubled by news reports that the Dharma Civilization Foundation (hereafter DCF) has put forward its own list of acceptable candidates based on race and religion. Further, we are concerned about reports that the DCF has already brought their favoured candidates to the UC Irvine campus, in the absence of any advertised search for these positions. According to Inside Higher Ed’s report on December 21, 2015, the DCF has proposed a list of possible candidates to fill the chairs, as well as a list of proscribed candidates, describing these lists as a “suggestion” to the University. Prevailing normative codes at public Universities and standard academic procedures require an advertised search where qualified candidates are vetted by established scholars selected from a wide pool of academic expertise. Reshaping academic selection via criteria based on ethnic origin or religious belief opens the door to discriminatory practices that are consequential for educators and students everywhere, not just at UCI.

Donors’ intentions to fund only certain kinds of religious practitioners, or only supporters of certain religiously-defined communities, contravenes not only anti-discrimination law but also standards of academic excellence. While it is possible that scholar-practitioners of a religion can enrich its study, it is widely accepted that being a practicing member of a religious group should not be a requirement for studying and teaching that religion. We fear the DCF’s efforts will lead to the appointment of scholars who do not represent the intellectual richness and rigour in religious studies and South Asian history. South Asia is a deeply heterogeneous multi-religious sub-continent, and its religious practices are highly decentralised, varying across region, class and caste. Academic study requires empathy, curiosity, and rigour, not a certificate of belonging or a methodology that is monitored by donors. We are particularly concerned about the specific ideological sympathies of DCF associates, and the commitment to compliance with donors’ intent currently embedded in the gift agreement (as published in the Orange County Register on December 16, 2015).

The DCF is part of a right-wing Hindu group of organisations that has been known to undermine Indian pluralism through an agenda that seeks to redefine true “Indianness” in terms of a historically-fabricated continuity in “Indic” religions (a list of religions that excludes the sub-continent’s traditions of Islam, Christianity and Zoroastrianism), and a privileging of upper-caste, “Vedic” Hindu identity. The DCF, although registered as a US non-profit organisation, is directly tied, through its office holders and its ideological roots, to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (hereafter RSS), an organization that is the main proponent of the political ideology of Hindu nationalism, or "Hindutva." DCF office holders have held, or continue to hold, positions within the Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh (hereafter HSS), which is a global partner organisation of the RSS (with an international program to extend RSS ideology, including raising money in the UK and US to be used for RSS schools).

The RSS and HSS misrepresent not only Hinduism’s relationship to other religions but also the historical fluidity and philosophical complexity within Hinduism itself. The RSS defines ‘Hindu-ness’ using an especially narrow interpretation of Sanatana Dharma and Vedic thought. The RSS is a militarist organization that has upheld violence as a means to reach political goals; it has used fatal force against religious minorities and political adversaries in the past. The RSS has been banned three times in India for its active participation in mass violence against Christian and Muslim minorities and its role in the 1948 assassination of Mahatma Gandhi. The HSS promotes a similar sectarian, exclusive, and xenophobic idea of Hinduism. Organisations linked to the DCF have been actively involved in hate campaigns and public smearing of diverse scholars of Hinduism who disagree with their interpretations of Indian history. Many members of the DCF board are office-holders and members of the HSS, and have tried to advance their ideological agenda in other educational settings. DCF affiliates have attempted to introduce factually inaccurate changes to California sixth-grade textbooks about Hinduism. The right-wing Hindu campaign to change California textbooks promoted a reductive idea of the religion, seeking to introduce elements that had been widely discredited by scholars of Hinduism. The Endowed Chair agreement between the DCF and UC Irvine, to our surprise, specifies that adherence to this intellectually discredited interpretation of Hinduism will serve as a litmus test for future faculty in the UC system. The candidates hired will be required to forge “partnerships with the Vedic and Indic heritage community in the Western diaspora,” and to fulfill the “Donors’ primary foundational intention” to uphold their vision of “Applied Dharma.” It is a matter of scholarly and financial concern that a gift agreement would specify that candidates prove alignment with Donor intent in order to be hired, and that certain faculty members of the UC system will be required to meet annually with private donors “to preserve a constructive collaboration with the Donors’ intent” in perpetuity.

We value the mission of the University of California and its commitment to robust faculty governance, public education and academic freedom. We support the diversification of research and pedagogy, but urge you to recognise the danger of privileging forms of expression which present themselves within the spectrum of “diversity,” while promoting or justifying religious or ethnic hatred, discrimination, or intolerance. Based on recent statements by the DCF and our understanding of the agreements that the School of Humanities signed, we are extremely concerned that it will be difficult to maintain a clear separation between “donor intent” and university processes. If UCI is unable to establish clear academic criteria for the vetting and hiring of candidates based on wide consultations with present faculty who teach South Asia-related courses, and if UCI is unable to ensure that there is no involvement of donors in academic decisions, we urge UCI to return the gifts and to end this relationship with the DCF and its associates.

Academic research and decision-making processes ought to evolve in the best traditions of independent thought and inquiry. At a time of State disinvestment from public education and the rising importance of private money in the growth of education, we understand the pressures on administrators to promote fundraising initiatives. However, the University of California has the responsibility to conduct due diligence, to protect its faculty, staff and students, and to follow ethical guidelines for broad democratic participation in our joint educational futures. We urge the University of California system to uphold the best ideals of academic freedom, and to reject partnerships with donor organisations or individuals who propagate narrow sectarian agendas that violate the very spirit and mission of a public university.

Sara Abraham

Researcher, Lahore University of Management Sciences

Meena Alexander

Distinguished Professor of English, Graduate Center/ Hunter College, City University of New York

Frederick M. Asher

Department of Art History,University of Minnesota

Jayadev Athreya

Director, Washington Experimental Mathematics Lab University of Washington

Gajendran Ayyathurai

Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Göttingen University, Germany

Paola Bacchetta

Associate Professor, University of California, Berkeley

Amit R. Baishya

Assistant Professor, Department of English, University of Oklahoma.

Sarada Balagopalan

Associate Professor and Director of Graduate Studies, Department of Childhood Studies, Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey

Sukanya Banerjee

University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee

Srimati Basu

University of Kentucky

Dr. Rachel Berger

Associate Professor, History Department, Concordia University

Varuni Bhatia

Assistant Professor, Hindu Studies, Asian Languages and Cultures, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor

Nilanjana Bhattacharjya

Honors Faculty Fellow, Barrett, the Honors College, Arizona State University

Tithi Bhattacharya

Director, Global Studies, Associate Professor, History, Purdue University

Debjani Bhattacharyya

Assistant Professor, Drexel University, Department of History, 3250-60 Chestnut Street, Suite 3025 MacAlister Hall, Philadelphia, PA 19104

Purnima Bose

Associate Professor, English and International Studies, Indiana University, Bloomington

Timothy Brennan

Professor, U of Minnesota

Laura C. Brown

Assistant Professor, University of Pittsburgh

Madhurima Chakraborty

Assistant Professor, Department of English, Columbia College Chicago.

Mrinalini Chakravorty

Associate Professor, English, University of Virginia

Shefali Chandra

Associate Professor of South Asian History, Washington University in St. Louis

S. Charusheela

Associate Professor, Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences, University of Washington, Bothell

Partha Chatterjee

Professor of Anthropology, Columbia University

Indrani Chatterjee

Professor, History, UT Austin

Angana Chatterji

Center for Race and Gender, University of California, Berkeley

Swati Chattopadhyay

Professor, History of Art and Architecture, University of California, Santa Barbara

Zahid Chaudhary

Princeton University

Preeti Chopra

Professor, Department of Art History, University of Wisconsin, Madison

Rohit Chopra

Associate Professor of Communication, Santa Clara University

David Clingingsmith

Dept. of Economics, Case Western Reserve University

Ananya Dasgupta

Assistant Professor, History, Case Western University

Veena Deo

Professor, English,CLA, Hamline University

Jigna Desai

Chair & Professor, Dept. of Gender, Women, and Sexuality Studies, University of Minnesota 425 Ford Hall

Wendy Doniger

University of Chicago

Richard M. Eaton

Professor of History, University of Arizona

Mayanthi L. Fernando

Associate Professor of Anthropology, Director of Undergraduate Studies, Department of Anthropology, University of California, Santa Cruz

Keya Ganguly

Professor, Department of Cultural Studies and Comparative Literature, University of Minnesota

Toorjo Ghose

Associate Professor, Chair,School of Social Policy & Practice, University of Pennsylvania

Bishnupriya Ghosh

Professor, English, UC Santa Barbara

Jayati Ghosh

Professor, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, India

Prof. David Gilmartin

North Carolina State University

Priyamvada Gopal

University of Cambridge

Inderpal Grewal

Yale University

Richard Grusin

Professor of English, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee

Charu Gupta

Associate Professor, Department of History, University of Delhi

Mary Hancock

Professor of Anthropology and History, University of California, Santa Barbara

Ziaul Hasan

Retired Professor, University of Illinois, Chicago

Qadri Ismail

Associate professor, University of Minnesota.

Dr.Chinnaiah Jangam,

Assistant Professor, Department of History, Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada

Pranav Jani

Associate Professor, English, Ohio State University

Vidya Kalaramadam

Assistant Professor, William Paterson University of New Jersey

Sangeeta Kamat

Associate Professor, Education, University of Massachusetts at Amherst

Suvir Kaul

A. M. Rosenthal Professor, Department of English, University of Pennsylvania

Prashant Keshavmurthy

Assistant Professor of Persian-Iranian Studies, Institute of Islamic Studies, McGill University

Jesse Ross Knutson

Assistant Professor of Sanskrit and Bengali, Department of Indo-Pacific Languages and Literatures, University of Hawai'i at Mānoa

Sankaran Krishna

Professor of Political Science, University of Hawaii at Manoa

Aishwary Kumar


Smita Lahiri

Visiting Lecturer, Anthropology, Harvard University

James W Laine

Professor of Religious Studies, Macalester College, Saint Paul. MN

Joy Laine

Philosophy Department, Macalester College

Vinay Lal

Professor of History, UCLA

Premesh Lalu

Director of the DST-NRF Flagship on Critical Thought, Centre for Humanities Research, University of the Western Cape.

Jean M Langford

Professor, Anthropology, U of Minnesota

David Lelyveld

Professor (retired), William Paterson University

Simon Leung

Professor, Department of Art UC Irvine

Ania Loomba

Catherine Bryson Professor of English, University of Pennsylvania

Kama Maclean

University of New South Wales, Australia

Sudhir Mahadevan

Associate Professor, Comparative Literature, Cinema and Media, University of Washington, Seattle

Saba Mahmood

Professor, Department of Anthropology, University of California at Berkeley

Sunaina Maira

Professor, Asian American Studies UC Davis

Neepa Majumdar

Associate Professor, Department of English, University of Pittsburgh,

Marc Matera

Assistant Professor, department of history, UC Santa Cruz

Biju Mathew

Associate Professor, College of Business , Rider University, New Jersey

Saloni Mathur

Associate Professor and Director, Graduate Studies, Chair, Art Journal Editorial Board, UCLA | Dept of Art History

Monika Mehta

Associate Professor of English, Binghamton University

Dilip M Menon

Director Centre for Indian Studies in Africa, University of Witwatersrand, South Africa

Raza Mir

Professor of Management, Cotsakos College of Business, William Paterson University

Madhuchhanda Mitra

Professor, English, College of Saint Benedict/St. John’s University

Durba Mitra

Assistant Professor of History, Fordham University

Megan Moodie

Associate Professor of Anthropology, UC Santa Cruz

Projit Bihari Mukharji

University of Pennsylvania

Sucharita Sinha Mukherjee

College of Saint Benedict/Saint John’s University, Minnesota, USA

Rahul Mukherjee

University of Pennsylvania

Richa Nagar

University of Minnesota, Twin Cities

Vijaya Nagarajan

Associate Professor, Dept. of Religious Studies, Program in Environmental Studies, University of San Francisco

Sandhya Devesan Nambiar

JMC, University of Delhi

Balmurli Natrajan

Associate Professor, Anthropology, William Paterson University of New Jersey

Britta Ohm

Institute of Social Anthropology, University of Bern, Switzerland

Goldie Osuri

Associate Professor, Sociology, University of Warwick

Shailaja Paik

Assistant Professor of South Asian History and Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Affiliate, University of Cincinnati, Ohio, USA

Joyojeet Pal

Assistant Professor, University of Michigan, School of Information

Gyan Pandey

Emory University

Vasudha Paramasivan

University of California, Berkeley

Andrea Marion Pinkney

Assistant Professor, Faculty of Religious Studies, McGill University

Sheldon Pollock

Arvind Raghunathan Professor of Sanskrit and South Asian Studies, Chairman, Department of Middle Eastern, South Asian, and Africa Studies, Columbia University in the City of New York

Gyan Prakash

History, Princeton University

Shalini Puri

University of Pittsburgh

Neshat Quaiser

Associate Professor Department of Sociology, Jamia Millia Islamia, Central University New Delhi

Gloria Goodwin Raheja

Professor of Anthropology, University of Minnesota

Arvind Rajagopal

Professor, Dept of Media, Culture and Communication, New York University

Rajeswari Sunder Rajan

English, New York University

M. V. Ramana

Nuclear Futures Laboratory & Program on Science and Global Security, Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, Princeton University

Lucinda Ramberg

Cornell University

Maia Ramnath

Professor of History and Asian Studies, Pennsylvania State University.

Anupama Rao

History, Barnard College, Columbia University

Raka Ray

Professor, Department of Sociology, Department of South and Southeast Asian Studies, University of California, Berkeley

Chandan Reddy

Associate Professor, English and Gender, Women and Sexuality Studies

Vanita Reddy

Assistant Professor, English, Texas A&M University

Marcus Rediker

University of Pittsburgh

Sharmila Roy

Attorney at Law, Laveen, Arizona 85339

Modhumita Roy

Associate Professor of English, Tufts University

Parama Roy

University of California, Professor of English, Davis

Poulomi Saha

Assistant Professor of English, University of California, Berkeley

G.S. Sahota

Assistant Professor, Literature, UC Santa Cruz

Yasmin Saikia

Hardt-Nickachos Chair of Peace Studies & Professor of History, Arizona State University

Laila Shereen Sakr

Assistant Professor , Department of Film and Media Studies, UC Santa Barbara

Bhaskar Sarkar

Associate Professor, UC Santa Barbara

Priya Satia

Associate Professor, Department of History, Stanford University

Freya Schiwy

Associate Professor, University of California, Riverside

J. Barton Scott

Assistant Professor, University of Toronto

Arijit Sen

Associate Professor of Architecture, University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee

Nayan Shah

Professor, American Studies & Ethnicity and History, University of Southern California

Svati P. Shah

Associate Professor, University of Massachusetts, Amherst

S. Shankar

Professor and Director of Creative Writing, Department of English, University of Hawai'i at Mānoa

Aradhana (Anu) Sharma

Chair and Associate Professor, Anthropology, Wesleyan University

Jenny Sharpe

Professor of English, Comparative Literature, and Gender Studies , Department of English, University of California, Los Angeles, CA

Elora Shehabuddin

Rice University

Dr. Zoe C. Sherinian

Associate Professor of Ethnomusicology, Women and Gender Studies (Affiliate Faculty), University of Oklahoma

Greg Siegel

Associate Professor, Department of Film and Media Studies, University of California, Santa Barbara, CA

Pritam Singh

Professor of Economics, Faculty of Business, Oxford Brookes University

Shana Sippy

Religion Department, Carleton College

Ajay Skaria

Professor, Department of History/Institute for Global Studies, University of Minnesota

Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak

University Professor, Columbia University, New York, USA.

Mytheli Sreenivas

Associate Professor of History and Women's, Gender and Sexuality Studies, Ohio State University

Tulasi Srinivas

Associate Professor, Emerson College.

Banu Subramaniam

Women, Gender, Sexuality Studies Program, University of Massachusetts, Amherst

Ajantha Subramanian

Professor of Anthropology and of South Asian Studies, Harvard University

Abha Sur

Program in Women's & Gender Studies, MIT

Raja Swamy

Assistant Professor, Department of Anthropology, University of Tennessee

Ratnakar Tripathy

Senior Research Fellow, Asian Development Research Institute (ADRI)

Siva Vaidhyanathan

Director, Center for Media and Citizenship, Robertson Professor, University of Virginia, Department of Media Studies

Vamsi Vakulabharanam

Associate Professor of Economics, University of Massachusetts Amherst.

Peter van der Veer

Director Max Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity, Göttingen, Germany

A.R. Vasavi

Social Anthropologist, Bengaluru, India

Gowri Vijayakumar

UC Berkeley

Rupa Viswanath

Professor of Indian Religions, University of Goettingen, Germany.

Gauri Viswanathan

Class of 1933 Professor in the Humanities, Columbia University

David Gordon White

J. F. Rowny Professor of Comparative Religion, University of California, Santa Barbara

Michael Witzel

Wales Professor of Sanskrit, Harvard University

Benjamin Zachariah

University of Trier, Germany

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