Scottsdale Community College administrators got caught up in responding to a deluge of outside criticism on social media over quiz questions related to terrorism and the Islamic faith in a world politics class, according to a recently completed outside investigation.
The Maricopa County Community College District, of which SCC is a part, initiated the review after school officials apologized for the quiz questions that appeared to imply terrorism is encouraged under the Islamic faith.
A Muslim student in the class took and posted the questions on social media.
Faced with a barrage of online criticism, SCC interim President Christina Haines apologized for the "inaccurate" and "inappropriate" quiz questions. The statement said the questions would be removed from future quizzes and that the professor would apologize.
After school officials sent Professor Nicholas Damask a prewritten apology letter to sign, he reached out to faculty counsel and the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. He said he believed his job and academic freedom were threatened, according to the report.
Chancellor Steven Gonzales, who leads the community college district, then stepped in. He issued a statement saying he was "troubled by what appears to be a rush to judgement in how the college responded to the controversy" and "a lack of concern"for the professor's academic freedom.
The district hired attorneys from Perkins Coie to investigate the college's response to the backlash.
The report found that school officials did not follow its procedures for student academic complaints or discrimination complaints.
"The focus of the SCC administration was deciding how to respond to and placate critics on social media," the report said. "The administration paid little attention to the actual exchange between the student and Professor Damask or the context of the quiz questions."
Damask told The Arizona Republic he was disappointed the firm did not investigate the school for violating his academic freedoms and would pursue the issue further.
"It doesn't get at some basic elements at what the college did to me in terms of my reputation," Damask said.
The school did not respond to a request for comment.
On April 29, a student in Damask's world politics course reached out to him with concerns over three questions on the quiz that he felt mischaracterized Islam in an offensive way, according to the report.
Screenshots of the questions were widely circulated on the internet.
Among the questions were, "Where is terrorism encouraged in Islamic doctrine and law?" and "Who do Islamic terrorists strive to emulate?"
The quiz specified the correct answer for the latter question as the Prophet Muhammad, chief prophet and central figure of the Islamic religion.
"I usually do not feel offended when my religion is talked about, but these questions are absolutely in distaste of Islam," the student wrote in an email to Damask. "I am a practicing [M]uslim and when reading through these questions I felt disgust in my stomach. I have enjoyed the Course up to this point, I understand the school has a curriculum but I feel I should not let these types of questions just stand. Thank you for your help and cooperation."
Damask thanked the student for the "heartfelt response" and attempted to explain that the goal of the quiz was to discuss the motivation of terrorists, not whether something is right or wrong under Islamic doctrine, according to the report.
"The course may outline these beliefs but that doesn't make it acceptable to teach this misinformation to other student[s] who aren't fully educated," the student responded. "Please review the questions I've attached and get back to me ASAP."
By the time Damask responded the next morning, the student had posted the questions on social media, prompting swift backlash.
The college and the district soon began getting complaints. The report notes hostile remarks came in locally, nationally and globally on both sides of the issue — those protesting the quiz and those protesting the professor's treatment.
The college's administrators initially indicated they were unsure how to respond, as the student did not file a formal grievance, according to the report.
But as the social media backlash mounted, the school's public relations manager Eric Sells encouraged the college to respond quickly and firmly, according to the report.
"As the College's public relations director, Sells drove the discussions regarding an outward-facing response, although he was not the only one who identified the need to address the issue quickly," the report found.
Emails from Stephanie Fujii, the school's vice president of academic affairs, indicate she and the school's interim president were unhappy with the questions.
"Want you to get a copy of the test. It's pretty bad," Fujii wrote. "Chris is pissed, as am I."
Fujii later wrote, "when I saw it – I understand the offense. this is really, really bad – everyone from the chancellor, chris, all the social media outlets are screaming about SCC as racist institution. not helpful at all in our enrollment efforts."
However, the report said Paul Weser, the division chair, reviewed the course material and the quiz with Damask's permission, and he concluded the material and quiz were appropriate to test students' understanding of what certain terrorist groups believe.
The report says there are two processes school officials could have followed: one related to instructional grievances and another related to discrimination. Both would have required the student to file a complaint with school administrators. The student never filed a written grievance with any appropriate administrative officer at the college, according to the report.
"They failed to follow every possible grievance procedure we have on the books," Damask told The Republic. "They were making things up as they went along."
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education wrote a letter to the college about its attempt to force Damask to change his course content and issue an apology. The organization seeks to defend academic freedom, whether for students or faculty.
"SCC's actions in response to Damask are irreconcilable with its constitutional and statutory obligations as a public institution of higher education," the letter read. "SCC cannot abandon its obligations under the First Amendment and Arizona law."
Perkins Coie attorneys were not asked to investigate the nature of the quiz questions or whether Damask's academic freedom was violated. The investigation largely focused on the college's response to the social media backlash and whether college officials followed policies and procedures in issuing an apology.
In a statement released with the report on May 27, Chancellor Gonzales said he would "take the appropriate time to consider the full report and make a determination on the way forward with the best interest of the System in mind."
The district has formed a Committee on Academic Freedom which is meant to champion academic freedom education and training and to resolve academic freedom disputes.
That committee held its first meeting May 21.