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Orange County | DANA PARSONS

Professor, Muslim Students Should Negotiate Truce Over Lunch

December 05, 2001|DANA PARSONS

My first instinct was to avoid the flap between Orange Coast College professor Kenneth Hearlson and a small group of Muslim students who claimed he offended them in class a week after the terrorist attacks on America.

The story had all the makings of "he said, they said" and, to make things worse, was set against the emotion-charged backdrop of the Sept. 11 attacks. Besides, without knowing exactly what Hearlson said, it would be pointless to offer an opinion.

The college administration, however, had no such qualms. It put him on paid leave within days of his Sept. 18 lecture, after the Muslim students alleged Hearlson lumped them with terrorists and, by extension, suggested they shared responsibility for the attacks.

Thanks to another student's transcribed tape of the class, we have a clearer idea what Hearlson said.

It's safe to say Hearlson will be back in class in the near future, assuming he wants his job back. There has been talk of a lawsuit against the college and, maybe, against the students who accused him of linking them to the terrorism.

Not to be namby-pamby about it, but nobody ought to be suing anyone over this. On the contrary, each party ought to be lining up to apologize.

Rather than exchange rancor, the parties should exchange explanations. There's an object lesson buried under all the vituperation, and everybody involved could come out looking better if he or she would do a little self-examination.

Bottom line: The transcript indicates the worst of the students' allegations are unfounded. Hearlson did not say, "It was you who flew the planes into the World Trade Center," as the students alleged. He did not say, "You are a terrorist."

For mischaracterizing him, the students owe Hearlson and the college an apology. They need to consult their consciences and ask why they claimed to hear what the transcript indicates was never said.

Two possibilities occur to me. One is that they set out intentionally to misrepresent Hearlson. If true, it is they who deserve the sanctions.

My hunch, however, is that they thought they were accurately characterizing Hearlson, because his remarks in class that day--as the transcription demonstrates--are so bluntly polemic.

Hearlson's supporters won't want to hear this, but I can see how and why Muslim students might feel singled out, even though Hearlson does acknowledge on the tape--when challenged by a Muslim student--that he doesn't mean to condemn all Muslims for the attacks.

Even on paper, his words sound less like a lecture than a screed. Add what many students say was the passion in his voice, and the effect was no doubt multiplied.

Frankly, I don't see a whole lot of "teaching" in there, but it's Hearlson's class and not mine. And granted, it is no better or worse than lots of screeds one could hear on American campuses, either from leftist professors or ultra-conservatives.

In his remarks, Hearlson condemns Muslim students at Orange Coast who, he says, a year earlier threatened him and distributed anti-Israeli posters. He links them to those in the Muslim world who have not condemned the terrorists or who continually espouse hatred toward Israel.

When a Muslim student objects to the apparent blanket indictment and asks Hearlson how he knew the offending students last year were Muslim, Hearlson says, in part: "They told me they were Muslims. They were wearing the same dress you are wearing, young lady."

Hearlson more than once says he's not talking about all Muslims. At one point, he even thanks a student for pressing him on that issue.

Still, the passion and duration of his condemnation of the Arab nations could not have been lost on the Muslim students. It's easy to picture four Muslim students in a class of 200--especially a mere week after the World Trade Center attack--reading more into Hearlson's remarks than he meant. And, perhaps, hearing more.

That said, he shouldn't have been removed from campus unless he requested it for his safety. His supporters say that wasn't the case.

The college, perhaps picking up vibes from Hearlson that he's considering suing over his removal from the classroom, says it doesn't plan to fire him.

A college spokesman told me Tuesday that Hearlson agreed to the paid leave and that it was done to separate him from the budding controversy.

A Hearlson supporter flatly disputes that version.

In a debate on academic freedom, Hearlson should be the clear victor.

The appropriate remedy, however, should be for him and the Muslim students to have lunch and conversation somewhere.

Assuming, that is, that each side listens quietly to the other.

*

Dana Parsons' column appears Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays. Readers may reach Parsons by calling (714) 966-7821 or by writing to him at The Times' Orange County Edition, 1375 Sunflower Ave., Costa Mesa, CA 92626, or by e-mail to dana.parsons@latimes.com.

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