When Clarion University unveiled its short list of presidential candidates a couple weeks back, one name rang familiar to those who had followed a tortured search at another state-owned campus only months before.
The fact that Dr. Amir Mohammadi once again was a leading presidential contender probably was no surprise, for reasons that include a career spanning three-plus decades and leadership experience in areas from business and finance to campus housing and student affairs.
But if an allegation he recently made is true, there could be another dramatic reason he is still a candidate there and not the person about to become president of Slippery Rock University, where he currently is a vice president, and which recently named a new president.
In a letter addressed to Slippery Rock professor Itzi Meztli, last December, Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education officials revealed that Dr. Amir Mohammidi, SRU vice president for finance, alleges that he was “discriminated against on the basis of national origin” during the university’s presidential search process, which began in December 2016.
The letter, which is dated Dec. 21, 2017, and signed by PASSHE chief counsel Andrew Lehman, asks Meztli to preserve any documents pertinent to his interactions with presidential search committee member and Council of Trustees member Robert Taylor.
Taylor was at the center of controversy during the university’s first presidential search process, which broke down in October after Taylor distributed a letter hours before a Council of Trustees vote that would have sent two finalists for the position to the state system’s Board of Governor’s for consideration.
In his letter Taylor claimed a conflict of interest was present between Mohammidi and two search committee members.
Trustees subsequently deadlocked in a 5-5 tie that ultimately resulted in council president Bill McCarrier declaring that the search had to start again from the beginning.
Jeff Smith, search committee chairman and a Council of Trustees member, and Kenn Marshall, a spokesman for the state system, released their own letters (Smith’s letter abd Marshall’s letter) the following week, stating that the alleged conflict of interest had been identified and was determined to be insignificant early in the university’s first search.
Meztli said Mohammidi did not fare much better in the second search.
“In the second committee, he didn’t even make the top 10 cut,” he said of the university’s process following the first search’s derailment.
SRU has since found its new president in Dr. William Behre, who served as provost for Georgian Court University. But Meztli said he raised concerns to the Council of Trustees before the second search committee had even been formed. He asked for Taylor to be left off the committee.
Meztli said after receiving PASSHE letter in December, he met with Christopher Moran, a lawyer with the Pepper Hamilton law firm. Meztli said Moran was investigating Mohammidi’s discrimination claim and asked questions specifically about Taylor.
Meztli said he told Moran about his attendance at the Council of Trustee meetings and about a private phone call between him and Taylor.
Meztli said in the phone call Taylor told him that a number of Council of Trustees members did not want Mohammidi as president.
Meztli, an American citizen of Mexican descent, said he was naturally upset by these comments.
“I support our administrators of color, and they should have every equal opportunity to advance,” he said.
Mohammadi, 59, is an Iranian-American and naturalized U.S. citizen. In January, he was asked to assume additional duties as the interim vice president for advancement at SRU.
Mohammadi has since continued looking for a top administrative post in higher education. In April he was announced as one of four finalists selected by the Clarion University Presidential Search Committee.
In his CV submission to Clarion, Mohammadi listed more than 33 years worth of higher education experience that included education and administration.
“His credentials are excellent,” Meztli said. “I hate to see that we’re going to lose him.”
Jeff Smith, the SRU trustee and search committee chairman, said he was at least one person on the first committee that was impressed by Mohammadi’s experience.
Smith not only disputed Taylor’s conflict of interest claims but also signed a letter penned by members of the first committee to state system officials last September, asking for Taylor’s removal from the search committee.
The Sept. 18 here, addressed to Deputy Vice Chancellor Kathleen Howley, and provided anonymously to the media, highlighted frustrations about Taylor’s conduct, accusing him that he tried to improperly sway the search.
Signed by nine committee members, the letter cites concerns about Taylor’s professionalism, specifically toward the state’s hired consultant.
“Mr. Taylor used his status as a member of the Council of Trustees to unfairly, inappropriately and unprofessionally attempt to impact the result of our lengthy, conscientious search,” the letter stated.
The letter asserted that he bullied other members, skipped Mr. Mohammadi’s interview with the committee and urged members not to advance the man’s name to the trustees, refusing to say why.
The letter made no accusation of discrimination based on national origin.
Smith said he also received a letter from state system officials ordering him to preserve documents related to the search process.
“I certainly complied with it,” Smith said. “The letter speaks for itself.”
Smith said he is unclear of the status of the investigation.
What a mess, what a shame!