By Vanessa D. Overbeck & Michael Diggin
By Vanessa D. Overbeck & Michael Diggin
Associate Professor Ali Issa is an award-winning instructor at Riverside Community College. He was voted Teacher of the Year in the 1992-1993 and 2003-2004 academic years.
On April 7 Issa came to the Viewpoints newsroom and identified himself as the unnamed professor in the Office for Civil Rights’ investigation released Feb. 28. On April 21 Issa verified again in a telephone conversation with a Viewpoints editor that he was the focus of the report. Viewpoints had already obtained police reports that place the retaliatory removal of Student 1 in Issa’s classroom during one of his scheduled classes.
Issa initially agreed to an interview, but after Viewpoints’ repeated attempts between April 20-27 by telephone, multiple voice messages, two visits to his office and one to his classroom he did not contact Viewpoints prior to publication.
Issa admitted on April 7 and 21 that he was the subject of the Office for Civil Rights’ report, but he denies the report’s claims. He said he’s just trying to be a good educator and that he’s the victim of a fellow faculty member’s personal vendetta.
“I want to be the best teacher I can be,” Issa said.
And Issa is not without support at RCC.
“The guy had a freakin’ drum circle and fed the homeless! How bad can he be?” a RCC student said on the website http://www.ratemyprofessors.com.
According to the Office for Civil Rights and college officials the unnamed professor removed a student from his class twice for polling his fellow classmates about his teaching methods. The report also said that two female students claimed he sexually harassed them, one of whom claimed he sexually propositioned her. Chancellor Salvatore Rotella gave no credence to these claims.
The report’s unnamed professor also has six additional sexual harassment complaints, as well as 20 complaints classified as “general,” which focus upon his instructional strategies and course content.
A female student approached Viewpoints on April 19 for information on filing a discrimination complaint after she felt her concerns would not be addressed. A prior similar experience left her skeptical of the administration’s dedication to action. Viewpoints will protect her identity as she said she will file a complaint against her instructor. She said his lecture on alcohol use caused her and another student to walk out of the class.
“I feel I am being discriminated against as a woman and as a Christian,” she said.
A Viewpoints editor gave her a copy of the Student Handbook, which contains the college’s procedure for filing a discrimination complaint.
The female student later said that an immediate consequence of filing her complaint was her placement in a different instructor’s course. She said the administration wanted to move her off the campus entirely for fear of her instructor retaliating outside the classroom. Discrimination laws restrict interaction between involved parties, but she said he confronted her anyway.
The discrimination investigation at RCC has left faculty and students feeling unsettled.
Student Trustee Gina Grace suspects that many students like the recent complainant have little confidence in the college’s administration.
“The way they handled these complaints makes students nervous that they can’t trust the system,” Grace said. “More students, faculty and staff are questioning the legitimacy of our administration.”
Debbie Whittaker, associate dean of Childhood Education echoed Grace’s concerns.
“(Discrimination) makes students nervous that they can’t trust the system,” Whittaker said.
However, Grace and Whittaker both have dealt withdiscrimination issues at the college and reported the administration produced satisfactory results. Grace had a problem with an instructor at the Norco Campus.
After she and 15 other students complained, the college addressed the issue the next week and ultimately removed the instructor.
As a dean at RCC, Whittaker said the college has provided her with all the tools and information she needed to deal with the inappropriate behavior or actions of faculty.
“In every instance I’ve had a problem the college has been very supportive,” Whittaker said. “I feel stressed for these people in retrospect who didn’t get the guidance or support they needed. I was disheartened to see that report because that’s not the RCC I know.”
One thing the report does not address is the unnamed professor’s continued impact on RCC.
He teaches four of the seven sections of the required health science class offered this semester at the Riverside Campus. This semester alone about 400 of 650 students seeking an associates degree or transfer to a four-year university will spend time in one of his classes.
Grace said that educators who abuse their authority should not be given the opportunity to continue to do so.
“That type of teacher shouldn’t be teaching and sending him to another college so other students can be discriminated against isn’t the answer,” Grace said.
Whittaker voiced a similar sentiment.
“Faculty wants those kinds of people corrected or out of here just as much as students do,” she said.
RCC’s chancellor, however, has a different viewpoint.
“Frankly we have a problem of procedure, not of substance,” Rotella said. He elaborated if there were substantive claims, then the college would have taken action and followed prescribed procedures. But neither the office nor the college found sufficient evidence of racial discrimination or sexual harassment. In fact, Rotella downplayed the impact the complaints against the unnamed professor and the ensuing investigation had on the college.
“I don’t think that particular case, per se, has a bearing in as large of an institution as we have,” Rotella said.
However, the chancellor recognized the necessity of addressing the Office for Civil Rights’ procedural concerns as it affects RCC’s future.
“I believe that the OCR investigation is a reality that we need to deal with. The image of the college is dependent on what we do,” Rotella said.
And one of the things RCC is doing is revising its procedures for handling discrimination complaints. In fact, the Academic Senate proposed a change that requires a panel review for final appeals of discrimination grievances. Current guidelines allow the chancellor to make the final decision by himself. The change would require him and the Academic Senate president to assemble a three- to five-person panel to make the final assessment.
“This change needs to occur for there to be checks and balances as there should be in a democracy,” Grace said.
Whittaker also said the amendment reflects confidence in American justice and democratic ideals.
“In our country we have a jury system and it’s worked effectively for many years,” Whittaker said.
Rotella said he was in favor of the amendment all along.