How Offensive Can a Trustee Be?
Nationwide, colleges have been bolstering their programs in Arabic and the study of the Middle East, responding to growing student interest and awareness that Americans benefit from better understanding the region. At the College of the Siskiyous, in California, such a plan prompted a tirade of anti-Arab and anti-Muslim comments from a trustee, disturbing many on the campus. The trustee is refusing to apologize or resign.
The community college is planning to offer its first credit courses ever in both Arabic and Middle Eastern history. At a board meeting last month, the additional courses were included among the "consent" items for the board -- non-controversial items that are typically approved collectively at the start of a board meeting, unless a board member objects.
Dorris Wood, the board member, objected last month, with the following comments: "When I look at this proposed class, my one thought is that we know all we need to know about the Arabs and Islam. They are our enemies: pure and simple.... They have declared war on the United States and are committed to our destruction.... When our schools fail the citizens of this great country by undermining the basic principles of democracy and support the sworn enemies we will fail completely.... Study history and understand how the Muslims have over the centuries invaded other countries and forced their religion by killing, plundering, and ravaging... Now they are invading Christian countries of the world from inside, one method being through our schools and universities.... If you want to give yourselves to Islam, you have the right and freedom to do that. But don’t give my country to them.”
The statement didn't sway the board and the courses were approved, but the fact that a trustee would describe Arabs and Muslims in this way (without any distinctions among Arabs and Muslims, who are not monolithic in their views) stunned those at the meeting, and many who heard of the comments later.
Concern over the statements prompted the college president, Dave Pelham, to meet with Wood and then to apologize to everyone associated with the college for her statements. In an e-mail he sent to students and professors, Pelham said that after talking with Wood, he had a better understanding of her perspective. "She raises the concern that the impact of religion in the development of our country is not dealt with in the same manner as it is when we teach courses about other cultures. In other words, her argument is that the impact of Christianity in the formation of the United States does not receive the same focus in our American history classes as the impact that Islam had in the development of the Middle East will receive in the proposed course on Middle Eastern history. Regardless of your opinion on this issue, it is a valid concern for discussion/debate."
However, Pelham continued in language that is unusually harsh for a president (even one who happens to soon be leaving for another position) to use about one of his board members. He said that her comments on Arabs and Islam as "enemies" demonstrated a "logical fallacy has been used many times throughout history to marginalize, isolate, and in extreme cases, eliminate large groups of people."
He continued: "As logically flawed as I find these remarks in the abstract, I am incensed by the fact that they classify members of our own staff, faculty, student body and community with the terrorists that attacked this country on 9/11. These people love and support our country AND are of Arab descent and/or follow Islam. It is to these members of our campus and community that I offer my most sincere apology. They deserve better treatment, especially at an institution of higher education."
Wood did not respond to messages seeking her comment. But at this month's board meeting, local press accounts said, she rebuked Pelham for having sent out his apology, saying that she is "an elected official, elected by the voters of Siskiyou County and not by the staff of the college.” She added, according to the Mount Shasta Record, that "when I speak about an item or an issue I am speaking on behalf of the public based on my judgment of that issue.”
Further, she told Pelham that he should not apologize on her behalf, saying "this is way beyond your authority."
A coalition of student and faculty groups, including the Academic Senate and the Associated Student Body, presented a joint resolution asking Wood to resign immediately, saying that her comments violated the anti-bias rules of the college, and that her seeking to block new courses based on those views amounted to an infringement of academic freedom. Wood ignored the request.
Pelham said that Wood has indicated that she plans to run for re-election to the board this fall.
A spokeswoman for the Association of Community College Trustees said officials there could not comment on the situation because they have a policy of never commenting on anything said by a board member during a meeting.