Maricopa County Community College District launches investigation into Islam quiz handling

Scottsdale Community College, 9000 E. Chaparral Road, is at the center of an independent investigation evaluating its handling of reported discrimination.
Scottsdale Community College, 9000 E. Chaparral Road, is at the center of an independent investigation evaluating its handling of reported discrimination.
(Independent Newsmedia/Arianna Grainey)

The Maricopa County Community College District has announced an investigation into Scottsdale Community College’s handling of quiz questions that were labeled discriminatory to the religion of Islam.

After a student brought the discriminatory quiz questions to the attention of school officials in late April, SCC’s reaction and answer to the issue is being looked at further by an independent investigation to consider the professor’s academic freedom.

In a May 1 statement posted to social media, SCC Interim President Chris Haines said school officials reviewed the three quiz questions and agreed with the student that the “content was inaccurate, inappropriate and not reflective of the inclusive nature of our college.”

In Ms. Haines’ statement she apologized on behalf of the school, and stated the administration had addressed with the teacher the offensive nature of the quiz questions. The instructor was reportedly going to apologize to the student, and they would be receiving full credit for the three questions, in addition to the questions being removed from future tests.

MCCCD Interim Chancellor Dr. Steven R. Gonzales issued a May 10 statement saying the questions, which surfaced on social media, were taken out of context.

Further, the interim chancellor states he is troubled by what appears to be a rush to judgment in how the college responded to the controversy. In response, an immediate independent investigation has been launched by the community college district, which oversees 10 local colleges.

“Last week, posts surfaced on social media raising concerns about three questions on a quiz given in a World Politics course at Scottsdale Community College. The questions were taken out of context from a unit examining violent political and social movements, and the subject they addressed --- the reliance of certain violent groups on religious texts as a justification for their actions --- was within the scope of the course,” Dr. Gonzales said.

“Because the questions were taken out of context, individuals not involved in the class, who viewed the quiz questions posted on social media, drew conclusions about the content of the course. Based on those conclusions, concerns were raised about whether the questions are consistent with the District’s values of tolerance and inclusion of all persons, regardless of their faith or background. Some individuals went further and made threats against the faculty member involved.”

The educator, Dr. Nicholas Damask has reportedly received death threats since the social media posts about the quiz began circulating. Dr. Damask is a department chair for the political science department at SCC; and has a faculty profile at Arizona State University’s Barrett the Honors College. He has taught political science for more than 20 years, according to his bio.

Dr. Gonzales continued his statement by saying he apologizes for the lack of consideration of the professor’s right to academic freedom.

“That said, I am troubled by what appears to be a rush to judgment in how the college responded to the controversy and the apparent failure to follow policy and procedure in addressing both the student’s concerns and the faculty member’s rights. I apologize, personally, and on behalf of the Maricopa Community Colleges, for the uneven manner in which this was handled and for our lack of full consideration for our professor’s right of academic freedom,” Dr. Gonzales said.

“To avoid rushing to judgment a second time, I am announcing the immediate independent investigation of the facts related to this situation. I expect this to be completed with all deliberate speed. Upon conclusion of the investigation, I will ensure appropriate accountability wherever any failures occur. Also, to clear up misinformation, the MCCCD Governing Board is not currently involved in an investigation of the professor, nor does it plan to initiate one. Furthermore, it is important to note that the faculty member involved is not in jeopardy of losing his position.”

In addition, the formation of the Committee of Academic Freedom was announced by Dr. Gonzales in the MCCCD statement. The Committee will be led by Provost Karla Fisher to champion academic freedom education and training and “to resolve academic freedom disputes in the hope of ensuring this fundamental academic value is better understood and realized alongside our longstanding commitment to the value of inclusion.”

Prior to MCCCD’s announcement, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education --- known as FIRE --- wrote SCC interim president Ms. Haines an urgent letter outlining deep concern for the freedom of expression and academic freedom.

“Our concerns arise from the college’s insistence that Professor Nicholas Damask issue a pre-written apology concerning questions on a quiz he administered, its indication that the Maricopa County Community College District Governing Board (the MCCC Governing Board) is investigating the matter, and its warning that future content of Damask’s course will be subject to review for ‘insensitivities,’ including by a religious leader,” FIRE Program Officer Katlyn A. Patton wrote in her letter.

Dr. Gonzales clarified in his letter that the MCCCD Governing Board is not involved in the investigation of Dr. Damask, and does not plan to initiate one.

The Philadelphia-based FIRE organization outlines a handful of points supporting Dr. Damask’s freedom of speech and academic freedom.

“Arizona law likewise bars SCC’s chosen course of action, as faculty members at community colleges are expressly afforded the right to ‘take a position on the public policy controversies of the day,’ and the institution ‘may not take action . . . in a way that requires students or faculty members to publicly express or endorse a particular view’ of such a controversy,” Ms. Patton stated in her 10-page letter.

“Requiring a faculty member to publicly disavow questions concerning terrorism --- one of the most controversial public policy matters of the past 20 years --- is precisely the coercive activity barred by Arizona law.”

--FIRE Program Officer Katlyn A. Patton

Mr. Damask, provided this comment to FIRE organization:

“I’m happy that the Maricopa Community College governing board has acknowledged the importance of the First Amendment and academic freedom, even into subjects that may be controversial — without that freedom of thought and inquiry, America just isn’t America anymore,” said Dr. Damask, who has been teaching at SCC for 23 years. “And I’m grateful for groups like FIRE that are willing to stand by me in the fight to defend that freedom.”