UC Merced professor Abbas Ghassemi. (Photo/Courtesy UC Merced)
UC Merced professor Abbas Ghassemi. (Photo/Courtesy UC Merced)

UC Merced prof with antisemitic tweets now under formal investigation

UC Merced’s preliminary inquiry into teaching professor Abbas Ghassemi, who owned a Twitter account rife with antisemitic content, has become a formal investigation into whether he violated the faculty’s code of conduct.

Ghassemi’s Twitter account was deleted shortly after J. uncovered the antisemitic content in December.

Among his roughly 2,200 tweets was a picture of a “Zionist brain” with the labels “frontal money lobe,” “Holocaust memory centre” and “world domination lobe.” In other tweets, he stated that Zionists and Israel controlled American banking, media, government policy and commerce.

The account included his academic title, his name and a photo of him. His bio stated he was a professor at UC Merced.

Eight days after Ghassemi’s account was exposed, university leadership condemned his tweets, with Chancellor Juan Sánchez Muñoz calling them “abhorrent” and “repugnant,” saying that an inquiry would be launched. Less than a month later, the university removed Ghassemi from its teaching roster for the spring semester.

The now formal investigation and details surrounding it were made public through a May court filing by Ghassemi attorney Michael J. DeNiro in Merced County Superior Court. In the filing made against the UC system’s governing board, the Regents of the University of California, Ghassemi is listed as “John Doe,” in an attempt by his attorney to protect his client’s identity. DeNiro, based in Santa Barbara, specializes in First Amendment cases related to academia.

The filing shows Ghassemi was notified of the formal investigation in an April 26 email from Gregg Camfield, UC Merced’s executive vice chancellor and provost. The email, a copy of which was reviewed by J.,  said the inquiry had expanded into a formal investigation because of “numerous” complaints received by the UC Regents, UC Merced’s president and “various” university offices the four months after J.’s initial report.

According to the email, Ghassemi is under investigation for five different possible infractions. They include whether his tweets created a “‘hostile environment’ that significantly impairs the teaching, research or service functions of the [u]niversity” and if his sending more than 2,200 tweets exceeded the “[i]ncidental personal use of computing resources” permitted by the university.

Also at issue is whether his tweets violated UC Merced’s discrimination and harrassment policies, whether Ghassemi “misrepresented his personal views as being a statement of the position of the [u]niversity” and whether he misused the university’s name through his Twitter biography and username, a violation that carries the penalty of a misdemeanor under the state’s education code.

Camfield wrote in the email to Ghassemi that if he is found to have violated any of these codes of conduct, the university can pursue disciplinary action. A five-person Privilege and Tenure faculty committee is currently investigating the matter to determine whether any violations occurred.

In a petition filed before the court earlier this summer, Ghassemi requested to delay a scheduled June 10 meeting with a UC Merced investigator until he and his attorney receive unredacted documents related to the investigation. On June 4, a judge denied Ghassemi’s request.

The documents are said to be “hundreds of pages” of correspondence from the public to “seven separate [u]niversity offices” objecting to Ghassemi’s tweets after they came to light. As part of its formal investigation, the university is required to compile these communications as “supporting documentation” for Ghassemi’s review.

But in copies already provided to Ghassemi, the university redacted any information that might identify the writers of the emails and letters. DeNiro argued in the petition that Ghassemi would be unable to properly defend himself against possible conduct violations without knowing “if any of the complainants are students, staff, faculty or administrators at the UC Merced.”

An opposition submitted by the university’s lawyers described Ghassemi’s position as “preposterous.”

Neither DeNiro nor Ghassemi responded to requests from J. for comment.

When Ghassemi’s tweets were revealed in December, they alarmed the Fresno-based Jewish Federation of Central California, the S.F.-based regional director of the Anti-Defamation League and others in the Jewish community.

A Jewish student at UC Merced, who requested to remain anonymous, said that they want to see Ghassemi be removed from his teaching position, noting that the tweets were “entirely out[side] of the academic space” rather than covered by academic freedom. “I think people should have the freedom to talk about what they want,” the student said. But “[Ghassemi] could have done it through an anonymous account” not an account with the university’s name.

“You can’t have professors that actively bring politics in[to] the classroom in a way that is destructive to any sort of discourse,” the student said.

As for Ghassemi’s request to see the unredacted documents, the student said that the size of UC Merced’s student body — with 9,100 total students, it is the smallest of the nine UC schools that offer undergraduate education — would make it very easy for Ghassemi to “intimidate” people were he to receive identifying information.

“It is a very small campus,” the student said. “Everyone knows everyone.”

According to a statement made by UC Merced’s legal counsel and provided by school spokesperson Jim Chiavelli, Ghassemi will not be teaching until the investigation is completed.

The statement said that Ghassemi has filed “several grievances” against the university.

“To date, UCM has successfully defended these actions,” the statement read. “The bottom line is that the [u]niversity continues to work diligently on this matter.”

Chiavelli, an assistant vice chancellor in external relations, declined to comment further on the investigation or the legal case.

Gabriel Greschler

Gabriel Greschler is a staff writer at J. You can reach him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @ggreschler.