Orange Coast College administrators on Tuesday reinstated a controversial professor whose comments had upset Muslim students, but sidestepped the questions of academic freedom that had made him a national figure in university circles.
Instead of delving into whether the instructor's comments were protected by freedoms granted to college faculty, the 73-page investigative report released Tuesday said that "most of the allegations made by the Muslim students against Ken Hearlson are unsubstantiated."
Hearlson can begin teaching next semester, administrators said.
College administrators had characterized the major concern as one of classroom decorum, not academic freedom.
Three of the Muslim students could not be reached for comment, and the fourth declined to speak. "I have a lot to say, but I don't want to rush into it," Mooath Saidi said.
A spokesman for the students would say only that they had had an amicable meeting with college administrators. Immediately after the report was released, the students went to take a final exam in their Tuesday evening class--the class that Hearlson had taught until the Sept. 18 incident.
Hearlson expressed dissatisfaction, saying that despite his reinstatement, he had received a letter of reprimand from college administrators. The college would not confirm that.
"If there was no false allegations, there would be no investigation, and voila! There would be no reprimand," Hearlson said. "How can there be a reprimand for something that someone lied about? That's what makes us incredulous."
Four Muslim students at the Costa Mesa community college had accused Hearlson, a tenured political science teacher, of calling them "Nazis," "terrorists," and "murderers" during a heated classroom discussion on Islam and terrorism. The allegations caused administrators to place Hearlson on paid leave, touching off an inquiry and becoming fodder for debates on academic freedom across the country.
Hearlson said the rhetoric became so threatening that he took to opening mail in his garage to avoid infecting his wife in case a letter contained anthrax.
Investigator Geraldine Jaffe, an attorney with the Orange County Department of Education, wrote that after conducting more than 20 interviews and reviewing e-mails and letters, and three transcripts of the class taken from audiotapes, she could find no evidence to back the Muslim students' claims that Hearlson had told them "You killed 5,000 people" and "You drove two planes into the World Trade Center."
Hearlson, who describes himself as a born-again Christian conservative, admits to making provocative statements about Muslims in his class, which he says is all part of stimulating classroom debate. Transcripts show him accusing Muslims of being hypocritical by condemning the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, but not speaking out against similar acts against Israel.
The students have said that they stood by their claims and suggested the tape may have been tampered with.
Ra'id Faraj, public relations director for the Southern California chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said the students' meeting with administrators went well. He said that he would have further comment after he reviewed the documents.
But Hearlson supporters, though pleased that he'll soon be back in the classroom, criticized administrators over the reprimand he said he had received. They said it could curtail academic freedom at Orange Coast and other colleges.
"In this politically correct environment, innocence is no longer a sufficient defense," said Thor L. Halvorssen, executive director of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a Philadelphia-based watchdog group that's giving legal advice to Hearlson. "They reprimanded a man who they themselves declared was innocent, and that's unspeakable."
Hearlson and his attorney kept the contents of the letter private, saying they were reviewing their legal options.
College President Margaret Gratton confirmed that a letter had been written to Hearlson, but declined to characterize it as a reprimand, saying only that it was a "confidential personnel letter to Mr. Hearlson."
She said the college was not curtailing academic freedom with its letter because that was not the issue at hand.
"Academic freedom bears the responsibility of respectful and objective discourse that is embedded in the faculty contract," she said.
"It's protected by law, and we fully support academic freedom at Orange Coast College."
But Kristina Bruning, president of the teachers union, said the letter, which she also described as a reprimand, will have a "chilling effect" on academic freedom. She said professors on campus have already complained to her that they've curtailed classroom debate because of the administration's response to the controversy. Faculty also have objected to the college's decision to place Hearlson on extended leave without a hearing.
"I don't think the message is that you can go back [to the classroom] and have everything the same," Bruning said. "The teachers, in part, are afraid that this can happen to them."
She said she will file a grievance against the administration on the reprimand, infringement of academic freedom, and interference with classroom management.