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October 10, 2008

Some Annenberg faculty question proposed Dubai pact

Some University of Southern California journalism professors are raising questions about a proposal for the USC Annenberg School for Communication to sign a $3 million contract to help the American University in Dubai create a journalism and communication school in the Middle Eastern nation.

Critics are concerned that the Arab nation could discriminate against non-Muslims, especially Jews. They also don’t approve of past support by the United Arab Emirates, of which Dubai is part, for movements dedicated to the destruction of Israel. Among them is the Palestine Liberation Organization.

Professor Jonathan Kotler, who was joined by a half dozen colleagues, first raised the questions. Kotler told me he was concerned about UAE support for the PLO and its “civil rights record…in its treatment of foreigners, women, children and gays…” And he noted that Mohammed bin Rashid al- Maktoum, the ruler of Dubai, has been sued for forcing young boys into slavery to serve as jockeys in the popular sport of camel racing.

He said the proposal “besmirches the name of the university and the Annenberg school.”

Annenberg Dean Ernest J. Wilson told me that he understands the faculty concerns. The journalism school, he said, “has a culture of skepticism.” But the proposal offers chance to train journalists who will be gathering and distributing information to the Middle East and beyond, he said.

“All institutions are trying to find new ways to engage with the world because the world is engaging with us,” Wilson said.

Wilson said the proposal was initiated by the American University and its Mohammed bin Rashid School for Communication, which is named for the nation’s ruler. He said the Dubai university made the proposal during the administration of his predecessor, Geoffrey Cowan.

Under the proposal, Annenberg would receive $1 million a year for three years to provide the Rashid school with curriculum advice and faculty assistance. Annenberg would also work with its Dubai partner to set up an international conference center and think tank there.

A memorandum of understanding declares that neither USC nor the Rashid school would “discriminate on the basis of race, religion, gender, color, age, physical or mental disability, national origin, veteran status, marital status or any other category protected by law in employment or in any of its programs and/or acitvities.”

Professor Ed Cray said the proposal is “contradictory, vague and fatally flawed.”

He said it appears “the contract was drafted by an AUD lawyer. It lacks the specificity that a competent American lawyer would insert in a contract of this sort.”

Cray particularly objected to a clause in the proposal declaring that “all disputes arising under this agreement that cannot be resolved between the parties shall be brought before a proper court in the UAE.”

Dean Wilson said this was “a legitimate question that has been raised by faculty members and I respect that.” He said that one possibility would have disputes could be resolved “in a third country.”

He said that he and the faculty will discuss the Dubai proposal and Annenberg’s participation in overseas programs at a meeting Monday.

Wilson said he would like a discussion about Annenberg participation in such programs. It could include talking about: the goals of the projects; whether they are consistent with USC, Annenberg and professional “norms;” the type of governance of the overseas partner; source of funding; whether it advances Annenberg’s interests and “if we go there, do we honestly think we can do some good.”

He said former Dean Cowan had gone to Dubai and worked on the agreement. Wilson said he had also visited the university and saw “women wearing short skirts, women covered from head to toe and mixed classes. Drawing on my experience of 30 years of going around the world, Dubai is more open than many other countries in the region.”

October 2, 2008

From foreclosures to sidecars: On the political road

Here’s my report of two days and 320 miles of being a political reporter in Southern California

My goal, beginning on Monday when the stock market plunged and the temperature soared, was to examine Riverside County for my column in Truthdig. I thought that by looking there, I might get a line on how Middle America feels about the presidential election.

Riverside county, unlike the more populous coastal California, is Republican. Neighboring San Bernardino, more blue collar, is Democratic—but certainly is no Westside L.A. or San Francisco. Heading north from these counties—known as the Inland Empire—a traveler encounters the moderate to conservative Central Valley. From San Bernardino to the counties north of Sacramento, color California purple. While California is expected to go for Barack Obama, these purple counties represent a swing vote, probably undecided between him and Sen. John McCain.

On Monday, I met my friend and former Times colleague Deane Wylie for lunch at Ciao Bella, an excellent restaurant near the University of California Riverside. We were joined by Patricia Barnes, a former editor on the Times Ontario edition and an ex Riverside Press Enterprise staffer, and David Glidden, a UCR philosophy professor.

They filled me in on the basics: Riverside County, which reaches south to the rich desert communities in the Palm Desert area, is Republican with a few Democratic enclaves. Foreclosures have hit the area hard, but not hard enough to shake the Republicans.

After lunch, I drove to the UCR campus to interview Professor Martin Johnson, who helps run the school’s growing polling center. I got his name from Kris Lovekin, the UCR director of media relations.He provided a copy of a survey that showed great worry about foreclosures—and hostility to the banks, information that backed up House of Representatives reluctance on the Wall Street rescue bill.

The next day, I headed back to Riverside County from my home in West Los Angeles. I drove through residential subdivisions in Moreno Valley, a city adjacent to Riverside. Moreno Valley is a solidly Democratic city.

I had read about the foreclosures that have hit the area and seen television reports on them. But nothing I had seen or read prepared me for six houses for sale in a .4 mile stretch of a street, two of them now owned by banks. Disaster has struck in a random manner. Some blocks had no for-sale signs. Some just had one or two. Then I came across one with a big “Auction” sign, reminiscent of scenes from movies and books about the Great Depression. In some houses without for sale signs, neglected yards and generally shabby appearances suggested the owners had left and the occupants were renting.

I talked to a couple of volunteers in the local Democratic headquarters, Radene Hires and Cherylynn Glass. They confirmed the economic and emotional impact of the foreclosures, but didn’t want to guess how they would influence the presidential election.

I drove back to Los Angeles. I had been invited to introduce Millicent (Mama) Hill, at an event marking the 13th anniversary of Project Acorn, a liberal community activist group I occasionally write about. Hill, an English teacher at Crenshaw High School before she retired in 2000, runs a program in her South Los Angeles home designed to help young women and men avoid the gang life and crime. A lender foreclosed on her mortgage, but ACORN intervened to save her home and program.

I was early, so on the way I stopped at a famous L.A. political hangout, the Pacific Dining Car, for a drink. At 5 p.m. none of the lobbyists, lawyers and politicians who frequent the place were there. The man next to me was drinking a sidecar over ice. He explained to me that it was an old fashioned drink made of brandy, triple sec and lime or lemon juice but he liked it. I said I knew. I told him I’d enjoyed sidecars when I started drinking but had to quit them because they made me crazy as well as drunk.

The Project Acorn event was at the headquarters of Local 721 of the Service Employees Union. It hadn’t started so I walked around the Virgil Avenue neighborhood, a few miles west of downtown. It’s a neighborhood of apartments, probably affordable for working families (if they double up) but they will be out of range if building ever resumes. At the union hall, I ran into Sen. Mark Ridley-Thomas, and interviewed him on the closed Martin Luther King Jr. hospital for a story I plan to do for LA Observed on his race with Los Angeles City Councilman Bernard Parks. Then I introduced both Mama Hill and a short video about her and about how she faced foreclosure.

I had dealt with hard times ranging from foreclosures in the Moreno Valley to foreclosures and bad health care in South L.A, traveling many miles as the temperature rose and my car radio provided a background of bad news. I’d had days like that when I wrote for the Times. It was fascinating then, as it is now.

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