NU-Q prof. withdraws from research project after backlash over racist, sexist blog repost


Photo courtesy of Northwestern Now

Northwestern University in Qatar. NU-Q political science Prof. Jocelyn Mitchell withdrew from a research project this month over a racist and sexist article she reposted to her blog in 2008.

Maia Pandey, Reporter

A professor at Northwestern University in Qatar has withdrawn from a $700,000 research project after members of the NU-Q community voiced concerns about a racist and sexist article she reposted online.

NU-Q announced in January that political science Prof. Jocelyn Mitchell and two of her colleagues had received a grant from the Qatar National Research Fund to study women entrepreneurs in Qatar. In 2008, two years before she began teaching at NU-Q, Mitchell reposted an email on her blog which said “the ratio of ugly women to not so ugly women (in Qatar) is 9:1.”

Screenshots of the post circulated online in November 2019, and Mitchell apologized in a community town hall and subsequently took part in anti-racism training under supervision of the University. After the post resurfaced online this month, NU-Q released a statement on Feb. 5 acknowledging that the incident “continues to cause pain in our community — both within NU-Q and the wider Qatari community.”

“We acknowledge that the pain is real and, as an institution, we pledge to renew our efforts to heal the wounds,” the statement said.

While the statement reiterated NU-Q’s commitment to “creating an environment that is free of any form of discrimination,” the University did not take any further action on the project or Mitchell’s role in it.

On Feb. 15, several weeks after QNRF announced its grant winners, eight NU-Q faculty members sent a letter to the community criticizing the University for supporting Mitchell’s grant application and calling for her recusal from the project.

“We cannot be bystanders because silence allows racism to continue as business-as-usual,” the letter said. “Many of our students have been pointing out institutional racism at NUQ, including recurring racial microaggressions, Eurocentric and orientalist curricula and research programs, and a lack of diverse faculty and staff.”

The University has not “unequivocally” distanced itself from Mitchell’s 2008 posts, the letter said, and needs to implement “clearer and more transparent processes for responding to racist conduct.”

On Feb. 16, a day after the faculty letter went out, Mitchell wrote an email to the NU-Q community announcing her decision to withdraw from the project.

“I would never repost such an email today, precisely because of how much I have learned and grown over my past thirteen years living and working in Qatar,” Mitchell wrote. “I am in full agreement with the colleagues who called these ideas ‘abhorrent.’”

While her statement only made clear her decision to leave the project, Mitchell said in an email to The Daily that her research team requested that QNRF withdraw the grant altogether. Mitchell said she will not be a part of the research regardless of the final decision on the grant, which rests with NU-Q communications Prof. S. Venus Jin, the project’s lead principal investigator, and QNRF.

NU-Q Liberal Arts Program Director Sami Hermez, who signed the faculty letter, said in an email to The Daily he advised Mitchell to withdraw from the project on Feb. 5.

“My understanding was that she did not (initially) take this advice,” Hermez said. “When she did finally release a statement suggesting she would not be on the project, my understanding is that the project was already terminated and just going through formalities.”

Jin announced the day after Mitchell’s email went out that she was in correspondence with QNRF about the project’s future and its potential termination.

Along with calling out Mitchell’s past comments, NU-Q community members and Arab-American activists also criticized the project’s exoticization of Qatari women.

Arab-American writer and activist Asma Alabed contacted student groups on the Evanston campus in early February to raise awareness of the incident. Upon advice from Multicultural Student Affairs, she also filed a complaint with NU’s Bias Incident Response Team, Alabed said.

“Marginalized stories are hard enough to unravel as is, especially those in the Arab world that are constructed and narrated through neo-colonial perspectives and solely through modes of Western knowledge production,” Alabed said in an email to The Daily. “Qatari women should be telling their own stories. They don’t need a white woman in a position of power to validate and explain their existence.”

Sharifa Ahen (NU-Q ’13) said in an email to The Daily she also felt this disconnect between NU-Q’s American professors and Qatari culture when she was a student at the University.

In particular, Ahen cited a 2019 incident where NU-Q Dean Everette E. Dennis made derogatory comments about students who objected to graduation being held during Ramadan.

“There is an unsettling and noticeable obsession with some NU-Q professors to exoticize and and take authorship of the Arab experience,” Ahen said. “Jocelyn Mitchell is not the main problem. Jocelyn Mitchell is a symptom.”

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