Students petition to appeal tenure rejection of Dr. Mubbashir Rizvi

April 22, 2021

Illustration by Deborah Han

Hundreds of Georgetown students are supporting a petition demanding the university reconsider its tenure rejection of Dr. Mubbashir Rizvi. The petition contends that Rizvi, a professor in the anthropology department who has taught at the university since 2013, faced racial bias and Islamophobia within the tenure process. 

A committee of five faculty members reportedly rejected the tenure application on the grounds of Rizvi’s “teaching performance” and “sustainable trajectory of research.” According to the petition, Rizvi’s tenure was denied in spite of his numerous anthropological studies, positive peer evaluations, and favorable student reviews. After the tenure decision last August, numerous Georgetown colleagues and academics in Rizvi’s field at Georgetown and institutions around the country also rose to his support in written statements.

 The student petition had 485 student signatories at the time of publication. 

According to a university spokesperson, Georgetown was aware of the petition as of April 20, but could not comment on individual tenure applications.

“The University has a thorough process for review of tenure applications which is set forth in the Faculty Handbook,” a university spokesperson wrote in an email to the Voice. “The review process is confidential and designed to include input and careful, independent review from many levels.”

The petition cites irregularities in the tenure evaluation process, as well as an established history of racial bias against and misrepresentation of Rizvi, his teaching qualifications, and academic research. The Voice cannot independently confirm any allegations of bias.  

The authors of the petition, Maya Durnal (COL ’21) and Pace Schwarz (COL ’23), are former students of Rizvi’s Environmental Anthropology course. They were prompted to write the petition arguing for a reevaluation of their professor’s tenure application following an email from Rizvi on March 18 laying out his case. 

“Some students were actually emailing me asking me when I’m teaching next fall,” Rizvi said in an interview with the Voice. “So I started telling people that I’m not going to be around anymore.”

 To receive tenure, eligible faculty members are reviewed on their research, teaching reviews, and peer evaluations. Without approval of his tenure application, Rizvi’s contract terminates at the end of the spring 2021 semester. The approaching end of his employment led him to turn to one last optionstudent support.

Rizvi’s email to former students, including Durnal and Schwarz, included his academic studies in anthropology, most recent student end of semester evaluation of 4.23 out of five, and proof of peer support. The students wrote the petition with the intent of urging the university to reevaluate his tenure application.

It takes a lot for someone to reach out and say, ‘Something has happened is there anything you can do?’ And especially for a professor to reach out to his student,” Durnal said in an interview with the Voice. “Just that act in itself I was like, this is absolutely serious. It is always in everyone’s best interest when someone says they’ve been discriminated against to take a second look.” 

The petition points out specific incidents where Rizvi says he has faced discriminatory actions on behalf of the anthropology department. According to the petition, some of Rizvi’s proposed courses were censored for using the word “Muslim” in the title or else dismissed for being esoteric. Rizvi also said a superior asked him to teach courses on terrorism despite never having conducted research on the subject, as his focus is in Muslim diaspora communities. The Voice could not independently confirm these incidents. 

Rizvi was also burdened with unprecedented responsibilities for a junior professor when he became his department’s director of undergraduate studies, according to the petition. Rizvi explained that such a position is usually reserved for already tenured faculty, to allow assistant professors the opportunity to focus on teaching experience, research, and published works. 

“I knew that I didn’t always have the most robust support in my department,” Rizvi said. “It’s a very small department, so it has a lot to do with the likes and dislikes of individuals.”

 He pointed to two senior colleagues on the review committee in particular, including the department chair at the time, Professor Denise Brennan, as having voted against his tenure. The Voice is unable to independently confirm Brennan’s actions. “It’s impossible to get a positive result if your department does not support you overwhelmingly,” Rizvi said. 

Professor Gwendolyn Mikell, who is the interim chair while Brennan is on sabbatical, declined to comment on the process or Brennan’s vote, citing the tenure discussion as a provost matter. 

According to the petition, one of the irregularities was an unusual composition of faculty reviewing Rizvi’s tenure application Due to the small size of the anthropology department faculty, three of the five members on the committee came from outside the department and, according to the petition, had limited expertise in Rizvi’s subfields of anthropology: social movements, South Asia, land rights, postcolonialism, and race and empire. According to an email to past students, Rizvi also did not have the protection of the new College Rank and Tenure Committee that reviews applications from a removed perspective without personal bias in department-level tenure deliberations due to the timing of his application. 

Rizvi contends that other prominent anthropologists and academics with more closely aligned research fields, including Professor Joanne Rappaport and Professor Shiloh Krupar, could have served on the committee if asked.

“I think it was clear that there were senior members of the department in anthropology who just didn’t want to continue having him there,” Rappaport said. “They’re letting go one of their tiny number of faculty members of color.”

Attention to Rizvi’s rejected tenure comes after the termination of a Georgetown law professor Sandra Sellers following racist remarks against Black students in her class. Sellers’ comments and firing, as well as the resignation of co-professor David Batson, received national coverage.

According to a Jan. 13 email from Rizvi to the College’s vice dean of faculty, David Edelstein, Georgetown’s Institutional Diversity, Equity, and Affirmative Action office is currently investigating his case.

“The university can dismiss me without a just cause, there is little to infer but prejudice in my department and the University administration’s indifference to junior faculty of color like me,” Rizvi followed up in an email.

Rizvi’s case has not only gained the support of the student body, but faculty members across Georgetown and from multiple peer institutions. 

According to Professor Mustafa Bayoumi of Brooklyn College at the City University of New York, who wrote a letter in support of reevaluating the decision, “The three typical polls upon which one is granted tenure are service, teaching and research, and he’s excelled in all of those.”

Rizvi’s colleagues mentioned the academic contribution of his scholarship and 2019 book, “The Ethics of Staying: Social Movements and Land Rights Politics in Pakistan,” to the field of anthropology. The book discusses the struggle of Punjabi tenant farmers against a military attempt to monetize land, as well as the ongoing movement’s impact on Pakistani politics.

Professor Junaid Rana, of the University of Illinois—a colleague, mentor and friend of Rizvi—summed up her assessment of his research: “It is not hyperbole to say that this is a groundbreaking book.”

Rizvi’s other scholarship includes seven research articles published in respected academic journals and dozens of conference presentations, with further work under review. At Georgetown, he designed and taught a number of courses as well as advising undergraduate and graduate student projects and theses.

At least two alumni, Chad Davis (SFS ’19) and Devika Ranjan (SFS ’17), submitted letters of their own attesting to Rizvi’s qualities as a professor and mentor. In Rizvi’s Ethnographic Research Methods class, Ranjan wrote, “He modeled a thoughtfulness in the field that is critical to ethical social science but unfortunately rare in its teaching.” Davis, who worked with Rizvi during the final two years of his undergraduate degree, added, “Professor Rizvi offers perspectives that I rarely encountered at Georgetown, and his work at the university is of great benefit to the campus, faculty, and students.”

Ranjan also emphasized Rizvi’s efforts to support her scholarship abroad, while at the same time ensuring that she had a robust safety plan while studying in Palestine and along the India-Pakistan border. 

“No other advisor I have had has cared so much about my work and my well-being,” she wrote.

Professor Moustafa Bayoumi, who taught Rizvi as an undergraduate at City University of New York, said, “He was so interested in the world and in learning and in exploring all angles of any kind of intellectual quandary.”

Other colleagues pointed to the future trajectory and value of Rizvi’s research. “His future research trajectory continues to build on the excellent work of his first monograph, and to develop new trajectories of specialization thinking through global paradigms of racialization and religious conflict,” Rana wrote. 

Professor Thomas Blom Hansen, chair of the anthropology department at Stanford University, reviewed Rizvi’s file in the peer review stage of the tenure evaluation. While not familiar with the Georgetown anthropology department’s process, he noted the role of bias in the academic world in general, saying, “Are there factors such as prejudice, discrimination on the basis of ethnicity, race and gender that influence tenure cases? Absolutely, and that’s exactly why many schools have appeal mechanisms.”

Between the time that Rizvi applied for tenure and when the decision was handed down, however, the university was in the process of restructuring its tenure review process. The new guidelines, to be implemented beginning with the 2021-2022 academic year, do not provide faculty members with the chance to appeal rejected tenure decisions. 

On April 21, Rizvi and the university began a mediation process through the DC Office of Human Rights. Throughout the petition process, Rizvi hopes the university will reevaluate his credentials for tenure and reinstate him, not in the anthropology department within the College, but as a tenured professor in the School of Foreign Service, where he hopes to receive more resources for his academic contributions.

He also hopes that Georgetown alters its attitude toward academic diversity to offering greater support to professors of color and their research.

“I would like them to actually practice what they preach if they’re talking about racial diversity, racial justice, Asian American Pacific Islander curriculum or ethnic studies curriculum; I’ve been doing that all these years,” Rizvi said. 

“The biggest problem with Georgetown is not recognizing all the great stuff that people are doing on the margins, but it becomes a publicity stunt when it’s convenient.”

This article has been updated to remove a quote from Professor Shiloh Krupar

Sarah Watson
Sarah is the former Spring 2022 Editor-in-Chief and a senior in the SFS studying Regional and Comparative Studies. She is a national park enthusiast and really just wants to talk about mountains.

Paul James
Paul is a former section editor and ESVA at the Voice and a student in the SFS, class of 2023, studying Culture and Politics. His favorite color is grey, spelled correctly.

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