MCCCD releases report of independent investigation of Scottsdale Community College academic freedom incident

Interim school chancellor to ‘take appropriate time’ to consider report, make determination

Posted 5/27/20

A report has been issued to Maricopa County Community College District Interim Chancellor Dr. Steven R. Gonzales detailing facts and findings related to Scottsdale Community College’s response …

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MCCCD releases report of independent investigation of Scottsdale Community College academic freedom incident

Interim school chancellor to ‘take appropriate time’ to consider report, make determination

Posted

A report has been issued to Maricopa County Community College District Interim Chancellor Dr. Steven R. Gonzales detailing facts and findings related to Scottsdale Community College’s response to controversy stemming from quiz questions described as discriminatory to the religion of Islam.

On May 11, Dr. Gonzales, announced an independent investigation into SCC’s response to controversy that surfaced after quiz questions from a World Politics course were posted on social media, amid concerns about how to appropriately address the student’s concerns and the faculty member’s rights.

The final report and associated appendix were delivered to the interim chancellor on May 26. The report outlines facts and findings from an investigation, and details conclusions made through the investigation, which includes the community college focusing on an influx of social media complaints. The administration paid little attention to the actual exchange between the student and professor or the context of the quiz questions, the report stated.

Dr. Gonzales will take the appropriate time to consider the full report and make a determination on the way forward with the best interest of the system in mind, according to a press release.

“The core function of education is to prepare students to engage critically with the world around them. Often, that means addressing difficult and contentious topics, even when doing so may be uncomfortable,” said Dr. Gonzales in a prepared statement. “The Maricopa Community Colleges strive to create an environment of respectful engagement where students and faculty can express their own views and learn from others, where all members of the community are welcome and the utmost freedom of inquiry is encouraged.”

The report is produced by national law firm Perkins Coie LLP, and lists Daniel C. Barr and Kristine J. Beaudoin as authors.

The 26-page report states the conclusions expressed in the report only reflect the information and documents reviewed as part of the investigation MCCCD asked for.

The facts within the report include a number of correspondences and actions that took place, starting with a student in Dr. Nicholas Damask’s World Politics course reaching out to platform to express concern over three questions on a quiz.

The student’s concerns became public after the student posted the quiz questions on social media, and an out-of-state social media influencer highlighted the issue on his own platform.

By the next morning, SCC began receiving an influx of comments on Instagram and other messages decrying the quiz, the professor and the college, the report states.

Perkins Coie was asked by MCCCD to investigate two separate, but related issues:

  • The facts underlying the college’s response to backlash on social media and from certain community members regarding quiz questions used in Dr. Damask’s World Politics quiz, including, what, if any, policies and procedures the college followed in deciding to issue the president’s statement on May 1; and
  • Whether the college administration attempted to interfere with the investigation by creating and circulating a timeline of events after the investigation was announced.

The law firm was not asked to investigate the nature of the quiz questions or the curriculum of the World Politics course in question, the report states.

Additionally, Perkins Coie was not asked to reach a legal conclusion as to whether Dr. Damask’s academic freedom was violated.

Official findings

Perkins Coie was provided access to documents and email vaults of 10 custodians to identify documents that may be relevant to the investigation. In addition, interviews were held with nine people, including SCC Interim President Christina Haines and several other SCC administrators; SCC Public Relations Marketing Manager Eric Sells; and MCCCD Director of Communications and Public Relations Matthew Hasson.

The report includes 18 points of conclusions, which includes that there is no evidence SCC Vice President Fujii or anyone else at SCC attempted to influence or affect the investigation.

Other conclusions found that there is no evidence anyone in the SCC administration further considered the email exchange between Dr. Damask and the student, or the context of the quiz questions, including an evaluation that neither the material nor quiz were determined to be Islamophobic.

From the moment that the SCC public relations manager discovered the critical comments on Instagram, the focus of the SCC administration was deciding how to respond to and placate critics on social media.

The administration paid little attention to the actual exchange between the student and Dr. Damask or the context of the quiz questions, the report stated.

“Instead, the College’s focus was responding to people outside of the SCC community in an attempt to stop the flow of critical comments on SCC’s Instagram account,” the report states.

While Mr. Sells was motivated by good intentions to protect SCC’s reputation, the PR manager has limited experience in higher education and did not appear to have an understanding of the district’s policies on academic freedom or procedures for dealing with student complaints, the report states.

Additionally, on-boarding for PR at the college district does not appear to include any training on issues specific to higher education.

Also, to the extent the student’s complaint about the quiz questions in his emails to Dr. Damask could be considered a discrimination complaint, the MCCCD Discrimination Complaint Procedures were not followed. To the extent any of the complaints on social media or directed at SCC through other channels were from students, did not follow the MCCCD Discrimination Complaint Procedures. The investigation found no instance of any student filing a formal complaint against Dr. Damask.

There is no MCCCD policy that specifically contemplates or permits disciplining faculty members over the contents of their material, quizzes or exams. To the contrary, faculty member’s have a right to “determine curriculum and relevant subject matter for courses, recommend the appropriate pedagogy, textbook and other materials relevant to teaching their subject,” the report stated.

The report also states that when Vice President of Student Affairs Donna Young and Vice President of Academic Affairs Stephanie Fujii attempted to determine the nature of the incoming complaints, SCC administration “did not give much, if any, consideration to relevant District procedures for dealing with student complaints about faculty.”

Also, MCCCD officials were made aware of the complaints coming in from outside the college, but largely left the college to handle the response itself.

The report also states that circumstances with COVID-19, including administrators working remotely, may have contributed to how SCC responded to the social media posts.

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