By the end of last year, Olga Perez Stable Cox, a professor at California’s Orange Coast College in Costa Mesa, had come to embody everything that many conservatives despise about higher education.
An openly gay professor with tenure and a taxpayer-funded salary, her popular class on human sexuality regularly pushed conventional boundaries, opening up conversations about sex work, pornography and how to engage in risk-free BDSM.
If that wasn’t bad enough in the eyes of her detractors, she had also called Donald Trump’s election an “act of terrorism” and then Vice President-elect Mike Pence “one of the most anti-gay humans in the country.”
When called upon to apologize, she refused.
Nearly four months and one semester later, in a development that is sure to infuriate her critics, Cox has been named OCC’s Faculty Member of the Year.
Considered the school’s top award, the winner is decided by a committee of faculty members, students and management who review applications, Rob Schneiderman told The Washington Post. Schneiderman is president of the Coast Federation of Educators/American Federation of Teachers Local 1911, which represents Cox. The award is meant to highlight dynamic teaching methods, innovation in the classroom and student success, he said.
After initially reporting that Cox would not accept the school’s award, an OCC spokesman told the Orange County Register last week that Cox would claim the honor. The spokesman noted that Cox had declined to speak during graduation — as the award winner usually does — because of concerns about recent cyberbullying.
“The faculty and staff and management have always known she was a dynamic and inspirational professor,” Schneiderman said. “In the current climate of bullying and intolerance and scapegoating, the OCC community felt compelled to honor her.”
“We’ve known her for 40 years,” he added. “The narrative that she’s not inclusive because of a 1-minute-and-50-second video clip is a false narrative, and we know that, and we want the world to know that.”
An Orange Coast College spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for comment. At the website RateMyProfessors.com, which allows students to rate their professor’s performance, Cox has a 4.6 rating out a possible 5.
Cox was temporarily forced to flee her home in December after her provocative comments about Trump’s election went viral, unleashing a flood of hate-filled emails that included violent threats.
The widely shared video shows Cox standing in front of her students in a class days after the election. She refers to the president-elect as a “white supremacist” and said “we have been assaulted.”
Cox told her students that the nation is as divided now as it was “in Civil War times.”
“First of all, we are the majority; more of us voted to not have that kind of leadership, and we didn’t win because of the way our electoral college is set up, but we are the majority, and that’s helping me to feel better,” she said. “I’m relieved that we live in California. It is one of the best states, and I love that, and I love living here, but I’m especially proud of our legislature, which did put out a message.”
Cox’s comments were recorded by a conservative student in her class who found her statements offensive and decided to share the video with the Orange Coast College Republicans, according to Joshua Recalde-Martinez, a political science major and president of the campus Republican group.
The video went viral, and within days, the beloved professor — who is largely unknown beyond the campus where she has taught for more than two decades — was under fierce attack. Her inbox and voice mail were filled with hundreds of threatening messages that referred to her as “libtard,” “Marxist,” “nut case,” “vile leftist filth” and a “satanic cult member.”
Reacting to Cox’s award this weekend, Recalde-Martinez told the Orange County Register that Cox does not “represent and respect all students. … This move on her and the part of the college only serves to resurrect past tensions against both her and the College Republicans.”
In December, Cox told The Post that she was struggling to regain a sense of normalcy after the harassment. She said she was confined to her home and was afraid to walk out her front door.
“Now, at 66, I’m paranoid,” Cox said at the time.
“It doesn’t feel good at all to be looking over my shoulder and wondering when an unfamiliar car pulls up across the street whether they’re going to take a picture of me or something worse — but that’s my life now. I feel like I’ve been attacked by a mob of people all across the country,” she added. “If they’re telling me over and over again that they want to shoot me in the face, how am I supposed to know if they’re going to do it or not?”
Though Cox returned to campus during the spring semester, the school also struggled to put the viral incident behind it.
Caleb O’Neil, the 19-year-old student who filmed Cox, was suspended for filming his professor, but the suspension was eventually dropped by school officials who hoped to “bring closure” to the months-long controversy, according to the Orange County Register.
Cox has consistently defended her controversial comments and said she feels like the viral clip took her words out of context.
In December, she said that she would spend the first 20 minutes of each class answering questions submitted anonymously by students. The questions usually involve sexuality and relationships, but in the days after Trump’s election, students began submitting political questions.
Cox said many of her students — especially those who were Muslim, gay or had undocumented relatives — had begun telling her they were scared after Trump’s election. Cox told her students she felt the same way.
“I had an international Muslim student who told me he was afraid to leave his apartment,” she said. “I cried with him, and I felt so bad because he was so alone and so scared.”
When Cox stood in front of class to answer questions that day, she said her rhetoric was not meant to inflame, but to help reassure her students “that OCC was safe.”
“I read a message from the school president and put together a handout for coping with pain,” she said. “As a therapist, these are things I share with people who are depressed. I basically said, ‘Deal with your feelings and do something positive,’ and I was helping them cope with their fears — that was the intent.”
Schneiderman said the Faculty Member of the Year award is meant to highlight Cox’s dedicated approach to her students and their well-being.
One of Cox’s teaching methods that stands out on campus, he said, is the panel discussions she leads in class. In the past, he said, panels have delved into topics such as sex work and issues affecting the LGBTQ community, often with members of those communities answering questions during lively classroom discussions.
Cox did not immediately respond to a request for comment about her award.
“Students love her class and the discussions that take place there and the information actually helps them,” Schneiderman said. “These are really important discussions.”
While deserved, he said, the award sends another message as well.
“I think the OCC faculty thought they couldn’t idly stand by while these militant students cyberbullied one of our senior faculty members,” he said.