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Free-range Thoughts

Marinating in the Mooc

Scenario 3: The Cockroach Problem
Clark Davidson College is a private liberal arts college that, like all small private educational institutions, is struggling to maintain its financial base, especially its endowment fund, while trying to attract a diverse student population. The school prides itself on its ability to provide scholarships for middle and working class families to afford tuition. Significant donations from wealthy entrepreneurs and successful investors fund the school’s historically ample scholarship fund, but without the scholarship fund enrollment would seriously decline.

The recent downturn in the economy has shaken the ability of poorer students to pay the discounted tuition, and donations from wealthy supporters have begun to dry up. As the recession continued, Clark Davidson began to increase class sizes, reduce athletic and arts programs, and even cut back on faculty. Morale has begun to drop, and there has been talk of the school raising tuition, reducing scholarship opportunities, and cutting programs. Though students and alumni are concerned about the future of their school, they take pride in the school’s mission, and the vibrant extracurricular life of the school and academic excellence continues to attract students from all parts of the country.

A wealthy benefactor and board member, Mr. Hamilton, has stepped up to the rescue by promising a trust fund for the improvement of Clark Davidson, though Hamilton is known as an opinionated member of the board. The use of the funds would include a substantial donation to the endowment fund, a newly built library with a vast collection of works on social justice, art installations, and a “Historical Documents Display” that includes the Declaration of Independence, Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, King’s Dream Speech, and the Ten Commandments.

However, some disturbing details have begun to emerge that could hinder the school’s ability to fundraise during a critical time. Rumor has it that Mr. Hamilton is associated with several conservative groups, and that he’s a major contributor to the legal defense funds of the former Bush administration officials who are likely to be charged with war crimes for supporting torture. It’s also whispered that Mr. Hamilton has made critical remarks at board meeting about teachers who promote Palestinian issues in their courses, and that he’s criticized the hiring of some professors who are “too political” when it comes to the Middle East.

Further complicating Clark Davidson’s financial concerns, in recent years, the conflict between Israel and Palestine has become the source of heated debate on campus. Though many student organizations have sponsored coffee talks to promote open dialogue between students and faculty who are interested in the issue, in some classrooms, the conversation has become more intense, leading in one case to an outburst by a member of the Students for Palestine in a Jewish professor’s class that “Israelis are war criminals,” to which several students responded with angry epithets. In this atmosphere, a teacher, Dr. Aviv, an economics professor of Israeli descent, has avoided the issue in his classroom, though students are well aware that Dr. Aviv is highly involved in the local Israeli community and has even criticized liberal college students in America as being largely uninformed about the real problems with the Palestinian claim to disputed territories.

During one evening last week, while he was preparing notes in his office for the next day’s class, Dr. Aviv was interrupted by a former student, Isaac Bashevis, also Israeli, who asked the professor to follow him, as the student needed his help immediately. Though he claims to have known nothing about the problem, Dr. Aviv followed the student to the student dining hall near his office, where many students from the SFP were holding a demonstration to, in their words, “recreate the environment of an Israeli checkpoint and to educate students on the oppression of Palestinians by Israelis.” SFP students, including Scazmi Abdullah, a Palestinian honors student on scholarship at Clark Davidson and leader of the SFP, had blockaded the doorway of the dining hall, demanding that any students or faculty wanting to enter show their ID’s and denying some students entrance based on what SFP claims was “an arbitrary decision by the gatekeeper to help students empathize with Palestinians who face similar unfair treatment.” When a conflict between Scazmi and Dr. Aviv erupted, students reported hearing Dr. Aviv respond to the student’s words by calling him a “fucking cockroach.”

In the days following, as news travelled across campus, Scazmi, who had earlier in the year been put on unofficial probation by the Dean for holding a lunchtime protest in the student union, was expelled for “incendiary behavior and disruption to the educational environment.” Some students retaliated by boycotting Dr. Aviv’s class, but given his excellent reviews by students in past evaluations, the board and administration, and especially Mr. Hamilton, were reluctant to proceed with disciplinary action. After Dr. Aviv started to receive death threats by anonymous email, the administration and board decided to put Dr. Aviv on temporary leave until further notice, pending review that could potentially lead to his dismissal. Dr. Aviv, who has since reported that he had followed the student to the dining hall because he was concerned about the potentially dangerous demonstration, admits that his exchange of words with Scazmi led to this insult, but that he had no prior knowledge that Scazmi was Palestinian and that he intended no racial insult. Scazmi, he claims, refused him entry into the dining hall when he was simply trying to deescalate tension and then fired off an insult, to which Dr. Aviv impulsively responded.

Some students want Professor Aviv fired, because he is racist; other students are more sympathetic to Mr. Aviv, but feel he showed poor judgment; and others feel that the students who provoked the confrontation should be expelled and that those students sending death threats should be sought and prosecuted. Isaac Bashevis has started a petition to secure the professor’s job because, in his words, “Mr. Aviv was only trying to help me.” As students of Clark Davidson how do you move forward and ensure that justice is sought while considering the long term future of your school?

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