After years of competing with other college districts in Orange County for donor money, the Rancho Santiago Community College District thought it had struck upon a winning idea.
Last year, the district was awarded an estimated $105-million contract to help run two technical schools in Saudi Arabia.
But even before the ink on the deal — which has not been finalized — was dry, the college district found itself being criticized by some faculty members who say the project wasn't publicly approved.
And now, the Anti-Defamation League, a nonprofit organization that fights anti-Semitism, is raising questions about the potential ramifications of operating schools in a nation that is ruled by an absolute monarchy and has a far-from-sterling reputation when it comes to democracy.
The league expressed its concerns in a May 14 letter to college district Chancellor Raul Rodriguez.
"While we support programs that seek to establish collaborative relationships with universities in the Middle East, we do believe that special care must be taken when establishing programs where there are restrictions on the activities of programs based on characteristics such as religion, gender, national origin or sexual orientation," the letter read in part.
The league warned the district that it was still bound by state and federal laws that prohibit employment discrimination.
Rodriguez said the district is following all applicable laws and its primary role in Saudi Arabia is to provide consulting services and help train faculty, improve facilities and set curricula for the all-male schools.
"It's not an endorsement," he said. "We're in no way condoning the views and stance of the Saudi government."
But compromises have to be made in some areas, Rodriguez said.
The schools in Saudi Arabia are gender-segregated and female instructors are prohibited from teaching male students. The district wouldn't hire faculty, Rodriguez said.
"You have to walk a fine line about what our beliefs in the U.S. are and the customs and culture of Saudi Arabia," he said.
Although the deal is rare, the college district is not the first to venture to the Middle East.
In September 2013, Valencia Community College in Orlando, Fla., signed a similar agreement with Princess Noura University, an all female school in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.
In February 2014, Niagara College in Ontario, Canada, won a bid to operate a hospitality and tourism campus in Taif, Saudi Arabia.
Rodriguez hopes the experience will help the district obtain similar contracts in other countries.
But members of the Faculty Assn. of Rancho Santiago Community College District, a union representing academic employees, are calling on the district to cancel the project.
Attorneys for the union sent a cease-and-desist order to the district in March.
The union says little is known about the project and that it was never approved in a public forum as required by the state's open-meeting law.
"The Brown Act is an extremely important piece of our democracy," Barry Resnick, president of the union, told officials last week.
Rodriguez denied the allegation and said the project was approved by the district foundation, an auxiliary of the district, which sought the bid on behalf of the district.