Conflict of interest charges are plaguing Santa Monica College (SMC) Political Science Professor Richard Tahvildaran after some of his students distributed election flyers for the organization Santa Monica For Renters Rights (SMRR), of which the professor is a co-chair.
The Mirror was unable to speak to Tahvildaran regarding the charges, however, the officials from SMC did address the matter. The college’s senior director of government relations and institutional communications, Don Girard, explained that the flyer distribution was part of a service-learning project that occurs in an election year and gives students the opportunity to work with local/municipal campaigns. Students learn about the project the first day of class, and according to an SMC e-mail to the Mirror on the project guidelines, “students sign an agreement declaring that they are voluntarily choosing to participate in the project. If a student chooses to participate she/he may select one of the options presented by the professor or she/he may research and select a campaign on his/ her own. For those students who choose not to engage in experiential learning there is an alternate in-class assignment.” Both are then equally weighted towards the student’s grade.
Girard emphasized that this type of service-learning project, with clear guidelines and multiple alternatives, “is common across the country in Political Science classes.” The practice has been used at SMC for ten years. Tahvildaran (also known as Tahvildaran-Jesswein) has been a professor at SMC since 1999 and became the co-chair of SMRR last June.
Jeffrey Shimizu who is SMC’s Vice-President of Academic Affairs, said that approximately 300 students are in Tahvildaran’s Political Science 1 classes and about 80 of them decided to participate in the service-learning project. However, the exact number who worked for SMRR was not disclosed. In addition, neither he or Girard or anyone else was able to specifically disclose which SMRR flyers were distributed by students or when they were distributed.
Santa Monica resident and attorney Stanley Epstein feels having Tahvildaran involved with this type of project is a conflict of interest because “the line is breached when an option is given for [student] credit in return for a distribution of election materials of the organization of which the professor is co-chair.”
Senior officials at SMC disagree with Epstein. Their official statement reads, “After review of the information provided, the College does not find a violation of institutional policy. However, we are reviewing potential conflicts of interest for this type of situation and will proceed with discussion on College policy in this area.”
After hearing the College’s statement Epstein responded, “it is not necessary to have a guideline that relates to this specific practice because every academic expert will advise that Tahvildaran violated professional ethics.”
Epstein, who is one of the most vocal voices against the professor, said he is willing to back–off Tahvildaran on this matter if he does two things: The first would be to write “a letter that he wouldn’t do this or anything like this again” and the second is that he will place the SMRR by-laws on the organization’s website. Until these conditions are met, Epstein said he intends to take the conflict of interest issue to SMC’s President and to the California Community College Chancellor’s Office in Sacramento.
SMRR’s Steering Executive Committee e-mailed the following statement about the issue to the Mirror. “SMRR welcomes volunteers from throughout the community, including students, and is pleased to be able to provide opportunities for students and other volunteers to learn what goes into a campaign at a basic grassroots level.”
The Mirror also asked the heads of the city’s neighborhood organizations to comment on the issue because Epstein brought it up at a recent Neighborhood Council meeting. The only one to respond was Ocean Park Organization’s President, Mary Marlow, who stated, “This is an inappropriate use of students as free labor to further the political agenda of a local organization. Shame on SMRR and the professor for teaching students that ethics isn’t important in politics.”