Ethical Debate

After an internal review by Santa Monica College into the conflict of interest charges made against Professor Richard Tahvildaran-Jesswein, the college determined that no violation of institutional policy had occurred. However, Stanley Epstein, an attorney and the person responsible for registering the complaint against Tahvildaran-Jesswein, has vowed to "take the matter to Sacramento" should the college not recognize and act upon his demands concerning the way the issue is investigated.

In a letter to SMC, Epstein gave the college until December 10 for "a decision on the independent body proposal" to be forwarded to him. If the college fails to do this, Epstein said that he plans to take the matter to the Office of the Chancellor in Sacramento.

In response to Epstein's demands, Don Girard, SMC senior director of governmental relations and institutional communications, said that the college "intends to reject Mr. Epstein's requests and will be prepared to respond to any inquiries from the Chancellor's Office."

Epstein believes that an independent body should have been responsible for determining whether Tahvildaran-Jesswein, co-chair of Santa Monicans for Renters' Rights (SMRR) since June, had breached ethical codes of conduct when he set an extra credit assignment for one of his Political Science classes.

The extra credit assignment, offered in his Poli-Sci 1 class this fall, gave his students the opportunity to gain extra class credit by volunteering to work on a "service learning project" which happened this year to coincide with the recent elections. Those students who volunteered were required to complete 15-20 hours of work on the local SMRR campaign, during which time they were expected to maintain a journal chronicling their experiences.

According to Epstein, "It was almost as if you gave him [Tahvildaran-Jesswein] money…he got something of value in contractual terms. The students got credit – this was of value to SMRR."

Tahvildaran-Jesswein was unable to publicly comment upon the matter but Girard said that students who decided not to engage in experiential learning were given an in-class alternative that offered equal credit to the service learning project - approximately 20 percent of the overall class grade.

Girard said that if any student who volunteered had not wished to work for the SMRR organization and had a particular desire to participate in another political campaign, as long as it satisfied the criteria of the project guidelines, " They [students] could have chosen their own campaign."

"It all followed a whole set of guidelines," said Girard, who pointed out that this project has been part of Tahvildaran-Jesswein's Poli-Sci 1 curriculum for ten years, during which time no student complaint has been lodged.

After the complaint was registered by Epstein, Girard said that the matter was looked into by Dr. Chui L. Tsang, SMC president, Jeff Shimizu, vice-president of academic affairs, and Christine Schultz, department chair of philosophy and social sciences.

In a statement by the college, their findings concluded that: "After a review of the information provided, the college does not find a violation of institutional policy. The College is reviewing whether new College policy is required in this area to address potential conflicts of interest."

Aside from Epstein's concerns regarding the involvement of students in a SMRR political campaign, Epstein was also worried that SMRR influence within SMC's Board of Trustees may have unduly impacted the decision to exonerate Tahvildaran-Jesswein's professional decisions.

In his letter to the college, Epstein stated that: "The President is completely within the control of the Board of Trustees. All or nearly all members of the Board have been elected with the endorsement of SMRR. Most served for many years in the leadership of SMRR."

In regards to the part of the college statement pertaining to a possible policy review concerning conflicts of interest, Academic Senate President Eric Oifer said that because Tahvildaran-Jesswein was not found to have violated the current Academic Freedom and Responsibilities statement, and that the whole issue was so broad, he was unsure whether the Ethics Committee had the grounds to make any significant alterations to the statement.

"To have one, defining policy is a real challenge," said Oifer. "That's why we have the Ethics Committee come up with a statement to help the professors. The thing is, no one has told Richard [Tahvildaran-Jesswein] what not to do in regards to his particular pedagogy."