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Contrary OCC Professor Back; Students Seem Oblivious to Bait

January 29, 2002|JEFF GOTTLIEB | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Four months after he was accused of slurring Arab students and stirred a national debate over academic freedom, an Orange Coast College professor braved a battery of reporters and photographers waiting Monday to chronicle his first day back in the classroom.

But few of the 90 or so students enrolled in Political Science 101, Survey of Current Issues, seemed to have a clue about the fuss over professor Ken Hearlson's return to the Costa Mesa campus.

"What's he talking about?" one student wondered when a reporter asked a classmate if the controversy over Hearlson caused her to sign up for the class. Hearlson, a U.S. flag pinned to the lapel of his sport coat, was happy to illuminate.

"Obviously the media is here because I'm back teaching my first class," the 57-year-old Hearlson announced.

Walking in front of the class with a bottle of water in his hand, sometimes sitting, once grabbing his golf-club cane to demonstrate a point, Hearlson immediately discussed what had taken him from the classroom Sept. 18 and thrust him into the center of a nationwide debate over academic freedom.

"We'll look at ... how the administration treated the issue," he said.

He told the class he was a Christian conservative but that they didn't have to agree with him. "I want you to defend your own opinions. Certain people take offense to that."

Pause.

"Get a life," he said.

Students applauded.

"This is America," Hearlson added. "We have a constitutional right to be stupid and to offend people."

His recent brush with fame seemed to have done little to attract students. The number enrolled in his 11:10 a.m. class was the same as usual. But he does have a reputation for keeping things lively.

Heather Diggs, 19, said she followed the recommendation of her sister, who said Hearlson was a good teacher who would make class more interesting.

Hearlson prowled the front of the classroom as if it were a stage, talking with his hands, his voice growing loud, then soft, but always grabbing his audience's attention.

He seemed to delight in making outrageous remarks and taking a contrarian stance. If he was trying to provoke students, none of them took the bait, at least not on this first day.

"I'm unlike other teachers," he said. "I don't want to be like you. I'm not going to talk or dress like you. I don't give a rat's patoot what you think of me."

He said he'd rather take advice from his gardener than elitist liberal professors. Nor will he grade on a curve because it's "a liberal idea" that will "dumb down grades."

The government, he added, is "sucking taxes out as fast as they can go."

Hearlson encouraged his students to take on their professors. "I want you to challenge them. Ask them questions."

He spent much of the hour-long class talking about himself. "I've done so many things it's incredible," said the self-styled "blue-collar professor."

He talked about his stint in the Marines; his jobs as a steelworker, custodian and carpenter; his being raised in a small town in Kansas; and his friends who were "Mexicans." "I believe growing up poor is an asset," he said. "I look back on it, and it was fun."

After class, Hearlson told reporters he had spent nearly $10,000 in legal fees defending himself.

Hearlson was suspended and later cleared of charges he'd called four Muslim students "Nazis," "terrorists" and "murderers" in a class discussion about the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. A 73-page report by an independent investigator concluded that most of the allegations against him were unsubstantiated.

Still, the political science professor said he'll file a grievance to keep college President Margaret Gratton from putting a letter in his personnel file. Gratton's letter cautioned him about singling out students for their race or religion. Hearlson, his supporters and the faculty union consider the letter a reprimand.

Hearlson said he would continue to talk about terrorism, the Middle East and other sensitive subjects.

"I love teaching," he said.

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