The Chronicle of Higher Education December 10, 1999
THE MYTH OF ACADEMIC FREEDOM
As adjuncts come to make up half the professoriate, many lament that they possess only theoretically the classroom rights enjoyed by their tenured counterparts.
To Many Adjunct Professors, Academic Freedom Is a Myth
As the ranks of part-timers swell, they lament how easily colleges can dump them
By ALISON SCHNEIDER
[Copyright (c) 1999 by The Chronicle of Higher Education. Posted with permission on the Szasz site. This article may not be published, reposted, or redistributed without express permission from The Chronicle.]
Here's a news flash for people who care about academic freedom: Half the professoriate does not have it.
Adjuncts are getting dumped for things tenure-track scholars do with impunity -- teaching controversial material, fighting grade changes, organizing unions. One part-timer was dropped after trying to talk about pornography in an ethics class. Another was ditched after racist words came up in a communications course. Then there was the professor who got fired for harassment after he mentioned tampons and anal sex in a pathology class. He sued and won.
But more adjuncts are losing when it comes to academic freedom -- a worrisome trend now that they make up nearly 50 per cent of the professoriate. Academic freedom for people off the tenure track is a myth, adjuncts say. "It simply doesn't exist," a disgruntled lecturer insists.
Not everyone is taking the situation lying down. Adjuncts have sued colleges in the name of free speech. Academic freedom is coming up at the bargaining table. And faculty advocates are warning that a dearth of academic freedom for some professors threatens academic freedom for all.
But most adjuncts would rather not publicly discuss the topic at all. Open mouths lead to closed doors, they say. All an institution has to do is not renew their contracts. No explanations required; no grievance procedures provided. Adjuncts just disappear.
"I am so beaten down that I'm just hoping I keep the job I have," says one mathematics instructor who suspects she lost a post over union organizing. "If I'm in this article with my name, they won't rehire me. They'll come up with an excuse."
That makes the academic-freedom violations of adjuncts almost impossible to track. "People fall like sparrows," says Richard Moser, the point man for part-time issues at the American Association of University Professors. Adjuncts on the outs with administrators are told their courses have been canceled, enrollment has dropped, the department is retrenching -- if they're told anything at all, he says. "It's never done by frontal assault. They're dead before they know what hit them."
Some professors are hoping the courts can revive their careers. In September, Ken Hardy sued Jefferson Community College in Kentucky for violating his free-speech rights. In a 1998 lecture, Mr. Hardy asked students in his interpersonal-communication course to deconstruct words used to oppress and offend. How did those words evolve? How do they impede effective communication? Examples got bandied about by the students -- girl, faggot, bitch, nigger -- and Mr. Hardy repeated them during the discussion.
One student out of 22 took offense. Words like "nigger" have no place in a communication course, the student, who is black, said. Her classmates, not all of them white, disagreed. "Can't you see what we're talking about?" they told her.
The student could not be appeased, even after Mr. Hardy, who is white, told her she could skip the rest of the lecture. She refused and accused Mr. Hardy of violating his own syllabus, which states that there will be no "abusive" language in class.
Mr. Hardy explained that the clause did not mean that offensive language would not be used in class, only that such words would never be used to demean individual students. He was trying to create a "safe place" where difficult language could be discussed, he told her, not to prevent those discussions from happening.
The student didn't buy the argument. She took her complaints to a local civil-rights activist, who carried them to the college president, Richard Green. Five days later, Mr. Hardy wound up in the office of the academic dean, Mary Pam Besser. A month later, he was out of a job.
By most accounts, the conversation with Ms. Besser did not go well. Wes Lites, the head of the humanities division, attended the meeting and resigned as division head three days later. In an affidavit, Mr. Lites said the dean had challenged Mr. Hardy's use of the word "nigger," noting that a "prominent citizen" who represented the "African-American community" had become involved. Moreover, Mr. Lites said, the dean had stated that enrollment was down, something the "prominent citizen" could exacerbate. The college couldn't afford to alienate the black community, the dean allegedly said.
Mr. Hardy thinks it was easier to alienate him. In August 1998, Ms. Besser left Mr. Hardy a message: There were no classes for him that fall. The news surprised Mr. Hardy. He'd been scheduled to teach three courses in the fall. Instead, he wound up locked in a lawsuit.
The college has filed a motion to dismiss the case, claiming that its decision not to rehire Mr. Hardy had nothing to do with his speech and everything to do with his services, which weren't needed anymore. One of Mr. Hardy's classes was canceled due to low enrollment; the other two were reassigned to a full-time professor, the college notes. (But adjuncts with less seniority than Mr. Hardy were kept on, the communication professor points out.)
Even if speech were at issue, Mr. Hardy's use of "vulgar language" wasn't protected, says Quint McTyeire, the college's lawyer, who is fielding questions on the case because Ms. Besser is named in the suit. "What goes on in the classroom is not protected by the First Amendment. It's not a matter of public concern. It's a curricular issue" -- Mr. Hardy made it one when he put that language clause in his syllabus. "The college is in control of curriculum."
That argument seems pretty shaky to people in the trenches, especially for a public college. "This is an academic-freedom issue," says Thomas Sabetta, who took over the humanities division after Mr. Lites resigned. "Ken's lesson plan was sound." Would Mr. Sabetta have tackled the topic? "Absolutely not. It's valuable to demystify words, but I wouldn't have done it. I would have been too afraid that this would happen to me. He has guts."
These days, Mr. Hardy, an adjunct at the University of Louisville, isn't feeling gutsy. "I ask myself if I'm getting gun-shy. Am I losing my will to teach? I find myself fearful of students. I worry about anything that might upset them."
It's an all-too-familiar lament, says P.D. Lesko, the head of the National Adjunct Faculty Guild. "People are terrified of being rigorous graders, terrified to deal with complaints about the course materials, terrified to deal with plagiarists. A lot of them are working as robots. They go in, they teach, they leave. No muss, no fuss." There's just one catch, Ms. Lesko adds: "If you're afraid to give an honest grade or an honest opinion, you're not teaching."
Jeffrey A. Schaler gave his honest opinion, but says it cost him his job. Mr. Schaler, a part-time psychology professor at American University and the Johns Hopkins University, ran into trouble after he was hired, in 1997, to teach courses at Chestnut Hill College: one on the spirituality of "Twelve Step" programs, the other on addictive behaviors. But unlike most psychologists, Mr. Schaler doesn't think addiction is a disease. He believes it's a choice, and that means people can control the behavior -- if they want to. The same goes for mental "illnesses," he says. As for groups like Alcoholics Anonymous, they're similar to "cults," using quasi-religious ideology to deal with addictions.
Mr. Schaler backed up his lectures with peer-reviewed articles, but "if you say mental illness isn't a disease, it's like denying the existence of God. It's forbidden."
In June 1998, he clashed with a tenured colleague, Thomas Klee. In an e-mail, Mr. Klee said he was "deeply offended" that Mr. Schaler seemed to be trying to connect the college with his "political beliefs." Mr. Schaler had suggested that Mr. Klee link his World-Wide Web page to Mr. Schaler's on-line syllabi, which are housed on an anti-mental-illness site. Mr. Schaler can think whatever he wants about mental illness, Mr. Klee wrote, but Chestnut Hill's psychology department "is on record with a specific theoretical orientation. That is our public position and any implied connection" with opposing views is "confusing and misleading."
The only thing that's confusing, Mr. Schaler says, is Chestnut Hill's commitment to academic freedom. He took the matter to his department head. But all the chairman did, Mr. Schaler says, was grill him about his beliefs on A.A. and mental illness. After hearing the answers, Mr. Schaler recalls, the chairman said he didn't want the adjunct to teach on those topics anymore. Mr. Schaler was not asked back.
While some colleagues might think Mr. Schaler deserved to be fired for his unorthodox views, that's not the college's position. "At no time was his academic freedom violated, nor were his views the basis for not offering him another course to teach," says William T. Walker, the vice-president for academic affairs. In fact, he says the college "defended" Mr. Schaler's academic freedom after he set off a hue and cry, in August 1998, by writing a letter to The Philadelphia Inquirer outlining his views on mental illness. The college received complaints, Mr. Walker says, and "in each and every instance" defended Mr. Schaler's academic freedom.
That's hogwash, Mr. Schaler retorts. Tenured professors with unpopular views are kept on, he says, but "I was done in." He's taken his case to the A.A.U.P., but "I'm not optimistic. I see a stonewall."
How often do adjuncts cut dicey topics out of the curriculum? A part-time philosophy professor, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, got ditched by a religious institution after preparing a presentation on pornography for his ethics class. He wanted to see if students could tell where art ends and porn begins, something difficult to do just by reading articles, he says. That's why he decided to bring in samples of both. Any students uncomfortable with the topic were told to skip the lecture.
The university thought it was the professor who should skip the lecture. After the department head got wind of the idea and mentioned the words "sexual harassment," the adjunct canceled the lecture. He gave a talk on censorship instead.
Midway through the next semester, the adjunct got a death threat in his introductory philosophy course. When asked for informal comments on the class, a student drew a gun with a bullet coming out of it and scrawled the words "I want to kill you" beside it. The adjunct, who figured out which student had made the threat from his handwriting, wanted him kicked out of the class. The dean refused. "The dean thought I was being overly emotional," the part-timer says.
After he turned in his grades, the dean informed him that there weren't any courses for him the next semester, even though the registrar had him listed for three. He spent a year unemployed, and now has a full-time post elsewhere. But he hasn't recovered from the experience.
"Prior to this incident, academic freedom had never been a concern," he says. "I assumed I had it. After this incident, I realized I didn't. I've become very concerned, maybe obsessively concerned, about class content. A lot of self-censorship has occurred. There are topics I won't discuss." In fact, he does everything possible to avoid teaching ethics at all.
But when ethicists avoid talking about racism and English instructors steer clear of short stories with the ''N'' word, education isn't necessarily dumbed down, but it is watered down, critics contend. That makes for a pretty lifeless learning environment, says Randy Vanderhurst, a former instructor at Colorado Mountain College. In 1995, he was fired from the veterinary-technician program for mentioning "tampons" and "anal sex" during a discussion of parasitic diseases.
To illustrate the point that water-borne parasites like giardia can survive sewage-treatment plants, he mentioned that he had once seen a tampon floating in water that had passed through a purification system. When the topic of cryptosporidium arose, Mr. Vanderhurst noted that the parasite is a particular problem among gay men because it can be transmitted through oral and anal sex. He also used the term "big chair" to refer to a toilet, and "sinkers" and "floaters" to refer to fecal matter. ("With giardia, there's a lot of fat in stool, so it floats," Mr. Vanderhurst says.)
"Taken out of context, 'big chair' might sound out of line," Mr. Vanderhurst says. "But in a parasitology class, it's not. If you lecture for 15 weeks on parasitology, it gets a little old. Context is everything."
The college thought Mr. Vanderhurst's language violated its sex-harassment policy and fired him. Mr. Vanderhurst fired back with a First Amendment lawsuit. He won a $557,100 judgment in 1998. Last month, the college argued its appeal but declined to comment for this article.
If he had it to do over again, Mr. Vanderhurst might watch what he says, too: "In hindsight, I probably wouldn't say a thing, but that would result in a very sterile situation. We've all known professors who basically teach by the book. But that means you're an information-giver rather than a teacher. And that's disheartening."
What's really disheartening, some professors say, is how few adjuncts are willing to stand up for academic freedom. For all the private carping, formal complaints are few. And even when adjuncts do go to battle, allies can be tough to find. Unions have divided loyalties when part-time professors file grievances against their full-time members. As for the A.A.U.P., its resources are limited and so are its tactics. All the organization can do is investigate whether a college violated a professor's due-process rights and censure it when it has. But that's not much help to adjuncts since few colleges grant them due process.
To complicate matters, there's no consensus on how much due process academe's day laborers deserve. "If we're dealing with someone who goes to a university Thursday from 7:30 to 9 p.m. once a week for 12 weeks, and he doesn't get reappointed and alleges it's because of academic freedom, can that person invoke the time-consuming and expensive machinery of a full hearing? The A.A.U.P. waffles on that," says Jordan Kurland, the general secretary of the A.A.U.P.'s academic-freedom committee. "He's entitled to a hearing, but we don't insist on the same full procedures that a faculty member with more equity in the place has."
After all, what institution could afford it? Universities hire adjuncts to save money, not spend it. "Part of the attraction of adjuncts is that when they're not effective, you can let them go easily," says J. Peter Byrne, an associate dean at Georgetown University's law school who has written about academic freedom without tenure.
Sometimes they deserve to get canned. "If their speech is stupid, vulgar, abusive, then eventually it's appropriate to penalize them," Mr. Byrne adds. He suggests a lesser form of protection: long-term contracts for adjuncts. Academic freedom can't exist without them, he says.
The American Association for Higher Education made a few suggestions, too. Last year, it published a model academic-freedom policy that explicitly applies to part-timers as well as full-timers. Nobody paid any attention to it, says Richard P. Chait, a professor of higher education at Harvard University and a leading voice on tenure reform. Was he surprised? Not really. His research center just completed an analysis of 250 college handbooks, he notes. Only 10 had academic-freedom policies that explicitly mentioned adjuncts.
Protecting the academic freedom of adjuncts could be dangerous, he points out. It might suggest that everyone's academic freedom could be protected without tenure. And then where would tenure be?
Copyright (c) 1999 by The Chronicle of Higher Education
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