College’s Incendiary Topic is Terror

September 30, 2001

By William Lobdell at Los Angeles Times

Education: Orange Coast is an academic-freedom test case, with Muslims angry and teacher on leave.

A laid-back community college known for its crew teams, sailors and surfers has become a caldron of political passion in the aftermath of an intense classroom debate about Islam and terrorism.

The conflict at Orange Coast College in Costa Mesa has divided a political science class, opened a rift between administrators and faculty, and spilled onto the national stage where the notion of academic freedom is being reexamined in the wake of the terrorist attacks on the United States.

Administrators at the 26,000-student community college put instructor Ken Hearlson on paid leave a day after hearing from four Muslim students who alleged that their teacher called them “terrorists,” “murderers” and “Nazis” during the heated class discussion. Hearlson said he was talking only about Muslims who condone terrorism, including attacks in Israel, and that he apologized twice during the 200-student Introduction to Government class. He also said he regretted bringing the subject up just one week after the Sept. 11 tragedy.

College President Margaret A. Gratton said the veteran teacher was quickly relieved, with pay, of his teaching duties to defuse an incendiary situation and allow time for an investigation.

But the move inflamed feelings already raw from the terror attacks.

At last Tuesday’s class meeting–the first session since the controversial debate–a finger-pointing, screaming match erupted outside the lecture hall between several Muslim students and more than 60 classmates. Three campus police officers and two administrators responded to the scene.

Some students yelled, “Go back to where you came from!” at the Muslim students. Another pupil sent an e-mail to school administrators alleging that a Muslim classmate had said, “Don’t hold your breath [that Hearlson’s coming back]. He might not live.”

The e-mail was forwarded to Hearlson, who contacted the Costa Mesa police and FBI about possible death threats. Representatives of both agencies have interviewed him, he said.

But Muslim students say they, too, feel threatened after the clash with Hearlson’s supporters.

“It wasn’t a debate. It’s called an attack,” said Mooath Saidi, one of the students who complained about Hearlson.

Hearlson backers have started petitions and e-mail campaigns and posted hundreds of fliers around campus.

“If the administration goes ahead and fires him, there will be great unrest on campus,” said Hearlson supporter Hani Bushra, an Arab Christian student and a leader of the petition-signing campaign. “We won’t let this issue die.”

Bushra and scores of others say the Muslim students misrepresented–or in some cases fabricated–Hearlson’s remarks, which they believe weren’t personal.

Jameelah Shukri, president of the Muslim Student Assn., said the Muslim students won’t rest either.

“I wanted this to come out,” she said. “I wanted people to know what Mr. Hearlson was doing. And the debate shows how much hatred other students have toward us.”

The only thing that isn’t surprising to anyone, including Hearlson, is that when controversy came to campus, it involved him.

The 57-year-old former Marine said he likes to challenge students with provocative questions and scenarios. On the first day of class, he tells them his bias: He is a conservative born-again Christian.

Last winter, a debate between Hearlson and his Muslim students got so heated that campus security was called.

“I like to irritate everyone, including myself. That’s how you get pearls,” says Hearlson, a former liberal who was once advisor to the campus’ gay and lesbian club. The teacher underwent a religious conversion in 1990 and his politics underwent a corresponding shift.

An ardent backer of Israel, Hearlson started his Sept. 18 class by saying: Why do Muslims condemn the terrorist attacks in New York and at the Pentagon but never denounce terrorist attacks in Israel?

Four Muslim students, sitting in the back of the lecture hall, entered the debate, which by all accounts heated up quickly.

The Muslim students contend that their instructor pointed his finger at them and accused them of murdering thousands of people.

“He pointed at me and called me a terrorist,” Saidi said. “I stand by what I have believed from day one. He should be fired.”

Orange Coast College isn’t the kind of campus where word gets around fast. All of its students are commuters, and many are attending class part time and in off-hours.

Students supporting Hearlson tried to spread the word around campus by putting up hundreds of fliers for several nights. By morning, they were torn down. Many students remain unaware of the controversy.

But faculty members got immediately involved, fearing curbs on an instructor’s right to make controversial statements. Many thought the administration panicked and put Hearlson on leave too hastily. The Academic Senate voted last week to form a task force to review the college’s academic freedom policy.

“We’re deeply troubled by what the administration did,” Professor Gayne Anacker said. “It’s positively chilling.”

Kristina Bruning, president of the Coast Federation of Educators, the faculty’s union, said it was unprecedented for the administration to place an instructor on leave without following the college’s due process procedures.

“I’ve never seen anything like this, but we’ve never been under [terrorist] attack before,” she said. “It is a major break in trust.”

“I’ve never seen anything like this, but we’ve never been under [terrorist] attack before,” she said. “It is a major break in trust.”

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a national academic-freedom watchdog group, says it’s been busy taking calls from instructors across the country who believe nervous administrators have been trying to curtail their freedom since Sept. 11.

OCC President Gratton agreed that the administration’s moves were unusual but that the circumstances were extraordinary.

“Under normal conditions, there would have been more extensive consultation” before placing a professor on leave, she said.

Ann Wynne, a professor on OCC’s Academic Senate, also fears for academic freedom but says she understands the tough position the administrators are in.

“They have a tremendous responsibility to the community, faculty and students,” she said. “You’re going to have to work in their shoes to understand. It’s a unique situation.”

The administration has brought in independent counsel from the county Board of Education to investigate and make a recommendation.

Thor Halvorssen, head of the national watchdog group, said colleges nationwide are silencing their professors from the “left, right and center” after the attacks. “There’s a clear epidemic that’s challenging academic freedom.”

At Duke University, officials forced one academic to post a disclaimer on his Web site stating that the university doesn’t endorse the papers he posted about terrorism and appeasement. The president of the University of New Mexico chastised a professor who told his class, “Anyone who can blow up the Pentagon has my vote.”

At Orange Coast College, special speakers are being invited to Hearlson’s class Tuesday evening, along with more security.

Through it all, Hearlson has watched his political science students’ actions–the petitions, lobbying, debates and media handling–with a sense of pride.

“They’ve learned the game of politics,” he said, “and taken it further than I ever imagined.”

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