Professor Nicholas Damask, a popular political science professor at Scottsdale Community College, has won a major victory for academic freedom, after the college publicly chastised him, in response to criticism and death threats he received on social media for quiz questions he wrote that connected Islam to terrorism.
Nine days after publicly vilifying the professor the college reversed gears and apologized to him for “a rush to judgment.”
The college issued a statement Sunday which clears the professor of any wrongdoing, and instead points the finger at the college district’s lack of judgment and tolerance for its long-time professor.
“I apologize, personally, and on behalf of the Maricopa Community Colleges, for the uneven manner in which this was handled and for our lack of full consideration for our professor’s right of academic freedom,” Interim Chancellor Steven R. Gonzales said in a statement released on Sunday. “To avoid rushing to judgment a second time, I am announcing the immediate independent investigation of the facts related to his situation.”
The issue that sparked the social media furor was three questions on the final quiz of the spring semester that connected terrorism with Mohammed, the prophet of Islam, and Islamic law. The online class, an introductory course in World Politics, included material on terrorism.
Damask, a tenured professor who has been teaching at the college for 23 years, said in a phone interview that the firestorm stemmed from one student who expressed his objection to the questions. The student said he was sick to his stomach, because “you offended my religion,” or words to that effect.
Damask said he had presented identical or similar material for most of his teaching career, with no objections. He replied to the student in two lengthy, cordial emails, telling him that the course was not intended to offend anyone. The point was to learn about world politics.
After the student responded by sending the specific questions to him, he did not respond again. Soon after that those questions — which included one which pointed to Muhammad as the one who terrorists emulated – were posted on social media.
The complaint about the professor landed on the Instagram page of an influential Muslim man, who has about 125,000 followers. The influencer, referred to as possibly a comedian, made a video about the questions, which set off the avalanche of hateful posts on the college’s Instagram account.
A day or two after the quiz was administered, Damask was sitting in a McDonald’s drive-through with his wife and grandchild, when the college division chairman called him.
“He said the school’s Instagram page has been hijacked by people talking about your quiz questions,” Damask said.
When Damask saw the posts, he was alarmed by the threats against him and his family — and shocked that the college was not taking down the posts.
“Then the college bureaucrats started their phone calls,” Damask recalled. “They told me the material was Islamophobic and offensive. I could see where it was going. The college was going to throw me to the social media mob.”
Interim President Chris Haines posted on the college’s Instagram page on May 1 that the college agreed with the student that the quiz questions were “inaccurate, inappropriate and not reflective of the inclusive nature” of Scottsdale Community College.
“SCC administration has addressed with the instructor the offensive nature of the quiz questions and their contradiction to the college’s values,” said the post, which was addressed to the aggrieved student and the Islamic community. “The instructor will be apologizing to the student shortly, and the student will receive credit for the three questions. The questions will be permanently removed from any future tests.”
But Damask refused to apologize. He did nothing wrong. He was explaining terrorism, according to original sources. For example, Al Qaeda would publish extensive manuals, even some books, to explain to the world why they were doing what they were doing.
“I was explaining to the students that this were the justifications that they were using for terrorist acts,” Damask said. “Al Qaeda would say where they get their example from. They would point to Mohammed and point to certain verses from the Quran. To relay this information to students shouldn’t be controversial at all.”
Damask decided to stand his ground and fight for his academic freedom.
Damask said during the 23 years he worked at the college, he had come to think of the staff and faculty as family. But despite the fact that the student never even filed a complaint about the professor with the school, the school officials sided with random people on social media rather than him. Damask had to send his family into hiding because of the threats, which included suggestions someone should shoot up and burn down the school.
“Never once did anyone offer any sympathy, or reach out to us,” Damask said. “Do you need the police? Not once did they do that.”
Damask said he was in pretty bad shape at that time, as he believed his job was being threatened, and death threats were coming in over social media.
“That’s how you treat your family,” Damask said. “You throw your family under the bus. People I’ve worked for almost a quarter of a century. Now I’m out there flailing, trying to defend my academic freedom. And I’m just flailing out there.”
He turned to his brother, who suggested they search for groups that may be able to help.
“I realized I would have to stand up for my academic freedom,” Damask said. “The college was not going to defend me. They were more interested in public relations than academic freedom.”
Damask contacted Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), a non-profit group based in Philadelphia who quickly agreed to represent him.
“They got back to me within a day,” Damask said.
The group fired off a scathing 10-page letter to President Haines, stating that altering the content of the professor’s course “is flatly inconsistent with the college’s First Amendment obligations and the basic tenets of academic freedom.”
The May 7 letter, signed by FIRE Program Officer Katlyn A. Patton, urged the college to “stop attempting to force him to issue a pre-written apology, and allow him to determine his own course content.”
The letter, which reads like a brief in a civil lawsuit, cites numerous Supreme Court and appellate court cases, including a Ninth Circuit Case involving the same community college district, in which the district defended the right of a professor to express his views on immigration and other controversial issues. Other professors sued the Maricopa College District because they argued that one professor’s opinions differed from “the vision of the district.” The appellate court ruled for the district, citing “the importance of free expression on college campuses.”
Damask said the school was throwing him to the mob — which consisted of literally thousands of social media posters, including residents of Pakistan and Malaysia — when FIRE stepped in forcefully on his behalf.
“The college district really violated my rights,” Damask said, adding that he called the letter that turned the tide “The Hammer of Thor Letter.”
Damask said he is still concerned about his family, which has been in hiding, as there have been death threats on the college’s Instagram page as recently as Sunday night.
He still questions why the college wanted him to apologize to a bunch of random people, half of whom are not even Americans. His class was never about religion, it was about terrorism, a key issue of the past two decades.
“It is about world events that are important to learn about,” Damask said. “After 9/11, I increased the content on terrorism. Are we going to fake that Al Qaeda didn’t exist or doesn’t exist? Are we going to say 9/11 didn’t happen? Some bureaucrats don’t want me to talk about that in class? That’s insane.”
When asked if he thinks he is out of the woods now, he said that he thinks he is.
“The district understands what they did was wrong. I don’t want this to happen to any other instructor. I fear that this could happen to another professor in two years or five years. But I believe that the chancellor’s statement alleviates some of those worries.”
Kathleen Winn, governing board member of Maricopa Community College District, spoke with Chancellor Gonzales on Saturday, after discovering a national newsmagazine article on Professor Damask’s situation.
“I voiced my concern that we as board members were not informed of the situation and that Professor Damask’s life had been threatened, and the safety of his family. Also that those threatening the professor vowed to burn down and destroy our college. He assured me that he would look into it and follow up with the board members as soon as possible.
I believe that the situation is unfortunate and it could have been avoided had we supported the professor per our policies from the very beginning.”