Community Commentary -- Margaret Gratton

Orange Coast College is one of the nation's leading community

colleges. In OCC's 54-year history, more than 1 million students have

received an education. These students have successfully transferred to UC

and Cal State schools, and other public and private institutions all over

the world.

Many graduates of OCC live and work in this area, contributing to the

professional and technical expertise of our community. Currently, the

college's enrollment is about 27,000 and growing. The legacy of

excellence and achievement is thriving in the daily life of the campus.

Recently, Orange Coast has been the focus of media debate regarding a

classroom incident on Sept. 18, one week after the tragedy and profound

emotional shock of Sept. 11. Four Muslim students complained about

statements allegedly made by their professor, Ken Hearlson, in an

American government class.

The students were upset and distressed because they believed Hearlson

incorrectly singled them out on the basis of religious beliefs and

created a highly charged atmosphere. Students asked for help and a review

of their complaint. The college has a moral and legal obligation to

listen to any student allegation of misconduct by an instructor,

regardless of the national, ethnic or religious affiliation of the

students or the professor. In this manner, students' rights are

protected. Faculty rights also are protected by contract language titled

"Academic Freedom and Responsibility."

As a routine review process began, several unprecedented things

occurred. For one, the story of the incident was given immediately to the

media, making the event, the faculty member and the students vulnerable

to outside debate and judgment prior to sufficient campus review. Persons

present in the classroom, who were questioned initially, gave different

renditions of what they understood was said, or meant, or what happened.

While some experienced fear and outrage, others did not.

In the meantime, crimes against Middle Eastern-appearing persons in

both Los Angeles and Orange counties were reported in the media. Emotions

were running high, and there was a real concern for the safety of both

Hearlson and the students. An objective account of the incident had to be

achieved and clearly that would take time. A routine practice under such

circumstances is paid administrative leave. Hearlson agreed to such a

leave, and the process was turned over to a third party review through

the Orange County Department of Education.

The college's position was to refrain from judgment until an impartial

study was completed. Unfortunately, others did not exercise the same

restraint. Many persons, even without direct knowledge of the case,

volunteered commentary and public judgment. Two student-made audiotapes

of the class were turned over to the media before release to the

third-party review. The second of the two tapes was not presented to the

reviewer until Nov. 29. Certain parties began working agendas quite apart

from the incident itself. The spotlight intensified. Hate mail via phone,

e-mail and letters was received, along with letters of concern or

understanding of a complex situation. On Dec. 11, Hearlson and the

students, in separate meetings, were given the results of the third-party

review. The conclusion reported by independent counsel is that the

alleged statements were "primarily unsubstantiated." Hearlson returns to

teaching in the spring semester. In the aftermath, the audiotapes,

transcripts and reports of interviews do sustain concern about classroom

behaviors.

Our freedoms are precious, but freedom bears a responsibility on our

part for the freedom of others. Contract language for the entire Coast

Community College District, which includes OCC, is titled "Academic

Freedom and Responsibility." It states that faculty are "free to examine

or endorse unpopular or controversial ideas appropriate to course content

or discussion with students -- nonetheless, the faculty member shall

attempt to be accurate, objective, and show respect for the opinions of

others."

Freedom, responsibility and respect are essential principles for good

teaching and learning, and they are fundamental to the enduring success

of Orange Coast College. These are the principles in place and remain in

place to protect both faculty and students now and in the future.

As this painful dilemma has unfolded, Orange Coast has enjoyed a

highly successful semester. Enrollment is flourishing. We are

transferring more students to Cal State schools than any community

college in the state. We are the leading transfer college in Orange

County for sending students to the UC system. Our culinary arts students,

speech and debate team, women's cross-country and women's water polo are

all state champions. The OCC Student Leadership program has been named

best in the state. Recently, student dancers presented the Winter

Festival; our new OCC Chorale performed Handel's "Messiah"; the OCC

Symphonic Orchestra gave an inspirational performance of Dvorak's "New

World Symphony." The legacy of excellence and achievement continues --

the legacy of freedom, respect and peace.

* Margaret A. Gratton is the president of Orange Coast College.

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