SMC — Is it unethical for a college instructor to give class credit to students who help promote one of their instructor’s favorite causes?

That’s the question that was raised at Santa Monica College this week after Stanley Epstein, an attorney and student in an emeritus class at SMC, objected to a long-standing part of the curriculum in a political science class taught at the college by Richard Tahvildaran-Jesswein, who is also the co-chair of Santa Monicans for Renters’ Rights, the city’s ruling political party.

For the past 10 years, Tahvildaran-Jesswein has included a “service learning project” on the syllabus of his Political Science 1 class during election seasons, offering students the option to earn credit by volunteering in a local political campaign and documenting their experiences.

While students are given the choice of doing an in-class assignment instead of volunteering, about 80 of the 300 people enrolled in the class this semester opted to fulfill the requirement by taking part in SMRR’s campaign, according to Don Girard, SMC’s senior director of government relations and institutional communications.

Students who decided to volunteer were required to complete 15 to 20 hours of campaign work and maintain a journal chronicling and analyzing their experiences in terms of course content, according to SMC.

It was unclear at press time whether any student in the class had fulfilled the requirement by volunteering for a political group other than SMRR. But Epstein said Tahvildaran-Jesswein told him that only SMRR materials were made available to the class.

The volunteer work, or the in-class alternative assignment, were worth 20 percent of the overall course grade.  

While Girard insisted no college policy had been violated because students were not required to volunteer for SMRR, the college administration has recommended that the Academic Senate, a faculty group, review procedures for situations where possible conflicts of interest could arise, Girard said.

Tahvildaran-Jesswein declined to be interviewed for this story.

But in a statement provided to the press, the college defended his practice of incorporating political volunteering into the curriculum.

“[Hundreds of] students have benefited by being placed in local campaigns. They have worked on initiatives and measures giving them valuable real world insight into the electoral process, democratic theory, and the workings of our democratic government. All of which are in line with the teaching of American government/politics in the discipline of political science. The practice of offering experiential learning in political science is common across the state and the country,” the statement read.

To date, there has not been a single complaint about the service learning project from a student in Tahvildaran-Jesswein’s class, according to Girard.

Epstein, though, said no proper investigation into his complaint has been conducted and called SMC’s defense of Tahvildaran-Jesswein premature.

“It was a white-wash,” he said of the college’s response. “It was done without any knowledge of the facts.”

He said he plans to send a letter to SMC’s president calling for a full investigation in which Tahvildaran-Jesswein and students in his class would be called to testify under oath about the service learning project.

Epstein said he continues to believe Tahvildaran-Jesswein violated SMC’s ethics code by using the classroom to benefit his own and SMRR’s political fortunes. He said he may take his allegations to the chancellor of the state community college system if he’s not satisfied with SMC’s handling of his complaint.

SMRR has dominated local politics for the last 30 years, holding a majority on nearly all elected bodies during the span.

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