An Arizona-based community college district has apologized for the mistreatment of a professor who garnered controversy over test questions considered by some, including a student, to be an anti-Islamic.
Nicholas Damask, a political science professor at Scottsdale Community College and chair of the college’s political science department, has received criticism and even death threats over questions he put on a quiz about terrorism for his world politics course.
He was accused by a Muslim student of asking questions that were in “distaste of Islam.” Initially, the school sided with the student and said in early May that the professor's questions were insensitive and “not reflective of the inclusive nature of our college.”
But after pressure from the free speech legal advocacy group Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, the head of Maricopa County Community College District released a statement Monday offering an apology to Damask.
MCCCD Interim Chancellor Steven R. Gonzales said the questions “were taken out of context,” especially by people not involved in the course. Gonzales stressed that Scottsdale’s actions against Damask were a point of concern.
“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,” Gonzales stated.
“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.”
According to The Arizona Republic, one question on the quiz reads: "Where is terrorism encouraged in Islamic doctrine and law.” Another reads: "Who do Islamic terrorists strive to emulate?"
The correct answer for the latter question, the newspaper reported, was the Islamic prophet, Muhammed.
Another question on the quiz also suggested that “Terrorism is justified within the context of jihad in Islam.”
Imraan Siddiqi, executive director of the Arizona chapter of the Center for American-Islamic Relations, a Muslim activist group, confirmed that the student who complained about the quiz is a Muslim.
Gonzales also announced the creation of an “immediate independent investigation of the facts related to this situation” and pointed out that Damask “is not in jeopardy of losing his position.”
He also noted that a “Committee on Academic Freedom” was going to be created to support “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."
FIRE, which sent a complaint letter to Scottsdale over the Damask’s treatment on May 7, expressed support for Gonzales’s announcement.
“We’re pleased that the district is not only taking responsibility for SCC’s failure to respect professors’ academic autonomy, but is also actively working to identify missteps to ensure this doesn’t happen in the future,” said FIRE Program Officer Katlyn Patton in a statement released Monday.
“FIRE will continue monitoring the situation, but we’re heartened that professor Damask can now focus on his teaching instead of defending his basic rights from his own institution.”