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Cancellation Won't End Dispute

December 14, 2010

Oregon’s Lane Community College is embroiled in controversy after administrators there canceled a noncredit course on Islam just as concerns about its instructor were made public last week. Now, both sides could be heading for a lawsuit.

The eight-hour “personal enrichment class” entitled “What Is Islam?” was brought to the administration’s attention Dec. 2 after an inquiry from a local television station. The class was to be taught by Barry Sommer, head of the local Eugene/Springfield chapter of Act! for America, whose self-described mission is to “inform, educate and mobilize Americans regarding the multiple threats of radical Islam, and what they can and must do to protect themselves and their country against this determined enemy.”

The next day, Dec. 3, administrators canceled the noncredit class before anyone registered for it. (The course was available only on the online course directory for about 48 hours.) But Lane officials did not cite Sommer’s background in canceling the course; instead, they pointed to the recently foiled terrorist attack in Portland and the seemingly retaliatory firebombing of a mosque in Corvallis days later.

“Due to the subject matter and in the context of recent events in Portland and Corvallis, administrators conducted an immediate review and concluded that the most reasonable action was to step back and take more time to give additional thought, consideration, and care in how to provide a rich learning experience in consultation with faculty,” reads a statement from the administration.

The same day, however, the Washington state chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) called on the college to replace Sommer as the teacher of the noncredit course.

"Unless the goal of this course is to promote anti-Muslim bigotry, Lane Community College should replace Mr. Sommer with someone who will offer students a balanced and objective analysis of the subject matter,” wrote Arsalan Bukhari, the chapter’s executive director, in a letter to Mary Spilde, Lane’s president.

Sommer, who spoke to Inside Higher Ed from his home in Eugene, said college officials had not told him why they canceled his course in an e-mail they sent the evening of Dec. 3. Noting that he received notice of the cancellation after CAIR issued a news release, Sommer added that he felt the college “bowed to pressure from CAIR” and “will always believe that CAIR was, in some way, indirectly involved with [Lane's] canceling the course.”

Spilde, however, insisted in an interview with Inside Higher Ed that her college “did not and will not make instructional decisions in response to pressure from any outside group.”

“Lots of people want to have a part in why this decision was made,” Spilde said. “Really, the instructor himself was irrelevant to the decision for us, as was the Council on American-Islamic Relations and Act! for America. The flag for us was the treatment of content like this in a highly charged situation because of recent events in Oregon.”

The college offers about 350 noncredit, “personal enrichment classes” every semester, and as many as a quarter are canceled because of low enrollment or other reasons. Spilde said the college hopes to have at least 6-8 students in each class. She added that Sommer’s course would have cost $55 per student and that Sommer would have received $20 per hour for instruction. (Instructors are paid for courses only if enough students enroll and they are actually taught.) Though she acknowledged that curriculums and instructors in these courses are not held to as high a standard as those offered for credit at the college, she argued that certain subjects and instructors are not meant for this continuing education setting.

“Yes, we believe in free speech,” Spilde said. “Everybody has the right to speak, but not everybody has the right to teach. Anybody can go out and talk to whoever wants to listen. We can’t stop that, and we don’t want to stop that. But, who teaches in a Lane Community College classroom and in terms of treatment of content, we do have control over that. We do have the right to make decisions like that.”

Sommer, however, countered that no one from the college or news media covering this incident made the effort to figure out what his course was all about. He provided Inside Higher Ed with a copy of the syllabus for the course he would have taught, saying that his course was meant to be a “historically and factually accurate history of Islam.” Though Sommer, 56, is unemployed and has only a high school diploma, he said he felt he was more than qualified to teach the course because of “20 years of serious research and study.”

“There’s no hidden agenda or anything untoward about any of this,” Sommer said of his course. “I don’t care what people say.… I wasn’t raised as a bigot or a racist or have Islamophobia."

With Sommer’s blessing, the American Center for Law and Justice, a group based in Washington, D.C., is threatening to sue the college if it does not reinstate Sommer to teach the course by Dec. 15.

"Canceling Mr. Sommer’s course due to CAIR’s complaint conflicts with the longstanding tradition at public colleges, commanded by the First Amendment, of protecting academic freedom in order to prevent an orthodoxy — often fueled by the political correctness of the day — from being imposed upon college instructors and students,” CeCe Heil, senior counsel at the group, said in a letter to Spilde. “LCC should right this wrong by reinstating the course and allowing interested students to register and draw their own conclusions."

Faculty at the college offered mixed opinions on the controversy.

Cliff Trolin, a part-time religious studies professor who has been at the college for 21 years, believes the administration did the right thing in canceling the course.

“We need balance and clarity when we’re dealing with Islam,” said Trolin, who teaches a for-credit course on the religions of the Middle East. “Well, we need it with all subjects, but we really need it with Islam. … This class didn’t seem to be offering that. ... The idea of teaching a hot-button issue in a continuing education course is probably not the best way to go. We need to move it into the for-credit side.”

In the spring, Trolin and a few other faculty members from the religious studies program plan to organize academic colloquiums and a seminar series “aimed at providing conceptual clarity, answering questions, and addressing issues” regarding Islam, Sonya Christian, Lane’s chief academic officer, said at a board meeting last week.

Even though he will help organize these springtime events, Jeffrey Borrowdale, a full-time and tenured professor of philosophy and religion, has a different take.

“I believe that as a public institution we have a responsibility not to engage in viewpoint censorship, even if the motive is sensitivity and tolerance. I would have let the class go and then done the sorts of things we're discussing next term: panels and colloquia on Islam, visiting scholars and a new credit course in the spring, and so on,” Borrowdale wrote in an e-mail to Inside Higher Ed. “The solution to bad speech — if it is bad speech — is not to silence it, but to challenge it with better speech.”

Borrowdale also believes the college should have engaged Sommer, rather than distancing itself from him.

“Instead, people relied on hearsay, material on the website of a group he's associated with and material on his blog,” Borrowdale wrote. “No one ever called or talked to him or asked him how he planned on approaching the course. … The academy has a responsibility toward the dispassionate and impartial search for truth, and sometimes truth can ruffle the feathers of various groups. We want to make sure we don't paint with too broad a brush when speaking about some of the troubling aspects of Islam, but we don't want to whitewash those aspects either.”

 

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