An Irvine Valley College administrator has warned instructors against discussing the Iraq war in class unless it is directly related to the subject they are teaching -- a message that some faculty members called the latest in a series of attacks on academic freedom.
In a memo mailed to department deans at the community college campus on Thursday, Vice President of Instruction Dennis White wrote that although he understood the depth of opinions held by instructors both in favor of and against the war, discussing those views in class would be "professionally inappropriate if it cannot be demonstrated to this office that such discussions are directly related to the approved course materials."
White could not be reached for comment Sunday. But college President Glenn Roquemore said the memo was "not a ban" and that the college respects the faculty's academic-freedom rights.
Though Roquemore didn't rule out any disciplinary action, the memo "doesn't say you're going to be disciplined and thrown out of your job," he said. "The memo has little effect, it's certainly not official, and it's subject to further debate."
Roquemore said White acted after receiving reports from college counselors and others that at least three students, including one with a fiance in the military overseas, became distraught after instructors expressed antiwar opinions in their classes. Roquemore said he would conduct an investigation to determine the facts in each case.
"I believe his memo was really meant to say, 'Please talk to me before you enter into a conversation with your students, unless it's in the context of a political science class,' " he said. "We have to remember these students are graded on attendance, they pay their money, they're enrolled in class; in essence, they're a captive audience."
Some on campus, however, interpreted the memo as a blanket ban and called it an overreaction based on a few incidents. They noted that the college of 13,000 students proudly advertises its cultural and racial diversity.
"I think Dr. White made an error in his judgment in assuming that college faculty would not be responsible in discussing the Iraqi war with their students," said Gregory Bishopp, a professor of art theory and criticism who is president of the faculty Senate. "With a student population where more than half of our students are nonnative-English speakers, and many of whom have family in the Middle East, it is critical that faculty have the freedom to discuss the war in Iraq in all its contexts."
Some said the memo is the latest attempt by administrators to muzzle free speech at the college. The college and the South Orange County Community College District board of trustees, which oversees it, have been sued seven times by students and faculty in recent years over issues ranging from student demonstrations to state open-meeting laws.
Among those who sued was Pourya Khademi, a 26-year-old music major who challenged a board policy on student demonstrations. He said White's memo is "preposterous.... This is one of the most significant events taking place in this world. To limit discussion of this at a college is to basically stop the development of thought."
College anthropology instructor and attorney Wendy Gabriella, who represented plaintiffs in several of the cases against the college, said she and others would go to court again if necessary.
"We'll see what they do on Monday. They can entrench, dig in and try to enforce this ban very quickly, or they can retract it very quickly," Gabriella said. "If they try to enforce this, or maintain this ban is appropriate, then we've got a lawsuit."
But other faculty members said they hope another legal battle can be avoided.
Ray Chandos, a professor of electronic technology, said it will depend on how people interpret White's memo. He noted that White said in a meeting with the faculty on Thursday that it would be relevant to talk about the war in a health class, for instance, if people were expressing anxiety.
Chandos said he thought the memo was a case of "an administrator who received a complaint from a student, wrote a memo and hoped the situation would go away."
Some students said they agreed with White's memo. "There are teachers who are just haranguing Bush and his strategies," said Delvia Logan, 49, and a member of the student Senate. "There are a lot of teachers who are making a lot of comments, and the students are kind of upset because it's distracting."