FIRE in ‘Chronicle of Higher Education’: Adjuncts Need Academic Freedom, Too, and Outside Organizations Do What Faculty Colleagues Often Won’t

By September 30, 2008

Adjuncts finally can take heart, at least a little. Adjuncts know all too well their low places on college and university totem poles, where they serve on contract, without tenure and usually with few of the protections of their individual rights that are enjoyed by their colleagues. Adjunct contracts often make no mention of academic freedom, but the contracts often do remind instructors that their schools can fire them at any time, for any reason, or simply refuse to rehire them once a contract is up. Faculty handbooks and union policies might promise academic freedom, and these documents may well have contractual status, but adjuncts who attract any negative attention whatsoever do so at their peril. The only good news for this ever-growing contingent of teachers is that a variety of organizations have been ramping up their efforts to help adjuncts fight for their academic freedom.

The current issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education, in an article named "Adjuncts Fight Back Over Academic Freedom" by Robin Wilson, notes the growing outrage and legal action among organizations that are fighting battles for adjuncts’ rights—battles that tenured faculty too often fail to fight for their own colleagues. She observes:

In most cases, the instructors say they have no way to fight back short of engaging in an expensive legal battle. But that may be changing.

Wilson notes two FIRE cases from 2007 where additional outside organizations have taken up an adjunct’s case. Steven Bitterman, then an adjunct at Southwestern Community College, was fired over the phone last year after students threatened to sue the school. Bitterman’s alleged offense, Wilson explains, was telling his class "that people could more easily appreciate the biblical story of Adam and Eve if they considered it a myth." FIRE helped Bitterman compose a letter to the school explaining his rights. A number of faculty members from throughout Iowa also came to his defense with an open letter arguing:

If he was fired because he expressed views that offended the religious sensibilities of some of his students, as he claims, this raises concerns among the faculty about the violation of Mr. Bitterman’s academic freedom.

If he was fired because of student complaints about classroom interactions with students, this raises concerns among faculty regarding due process. Dismissal because of student complaints about teaching style seems unusually harsh and we question whether this was the only recourse available.

But not a single faculty member from Southwestern was a signatory to the letter. Finally, the American Humanist Association backed Mr. Bitterman and helped him win a $20,000 settlement.

In another FIRE case, adjunct June Sheldon was fired from the San José/Evergreen Community College District after a student complaint led to a cursory investigation of whether or not Sheldon had been teaching "science." The course, Human Heredity, was confronting the thorny issue of nature vs. nurture regarding the origins of human sexuality. After a student complained about a five-minute segment of class discussion, Sheldon denied having said the many strange things that the single student alleged. The investigation did not involve any other students; the dean simply asked other professors what they thought about the nature/nurture debate and, crassly, whether the other professors agreed with Sheldon’s alleged comment that there were "no female homosexuals." FIRE pointed out the violations of Sheldon’s rights in a letter, but again there was no sign of support from the other faculty members at San José City College. Once again, another outside organization has been fighting for Sheldon’s rights. The Alliance Defense Fund filed suit on Sheldon’s behalf, and the case is ongoing.

Even the American Association of University Professors is turning its attention to adjuncts’ academic freedom:

Gary Rhoades, who will take over as general secretary of the AAUP in January, says it is dangerous not to extend academic freedom to instructors. "We’re compromising the quality of a college education," he adds, "if we’re saying to a large portion of the academic work force: Don’t offend anyone." … [A]s the number of full- and part-time instructors off the tenure track has grown, the AAUP has tried to steer universities into explicitly extending academic freedom to them as well.

In 2006, the association published a set of procedures it said universities should follow when terminating or simply not rehiring instructors. Universities, the procedures say, should tell instructors why they were not rehired and give them a formal opportunity to appeal the decision. At its meeting last June, the AAUP censured the University of New Haven for dismissing an adjunct professor who students said graded too harshly and was insensitive to their concerns. The university failed to investigate the students’ complaints, said the AAUP, or to give the adjunct instructor access to its grievance procedures. "We’ll be pursuing more of these cases," says Cary Nelson, the association’s president. "We need to ramp up our commitment."

In a third case described by Wilson, North Carolina State University appears to have let a full-time, nine-month contract for cinema studies adjunct Terri Ginsburg expire despite having promised that the university would consider her for a tenure-track job. Ginsburg argues that she was not even reappointed because administrators and faculty members disagreed with her pro-Palestinian views, which she had expressed during a film screening. According to Wilson, "When Ms. Ginsburg tried to file a formal grievance shortly after leaving the university, complaining that campus administrators declined to rehire her because they disagreed with her views, the university’s chancellor said she had no right to a hearing because she was no longer an employee, she says." The National Project to Defend Dissent and Critical Thinking in Academia has been working in Ginsburg’s defense. Ginsburg has an appeal pending before the school’s board of trustees. Yet again, it is an outside group rather than the school’s own faculty members defending the rights of an adjunct professor.

Why do faculty members so seldom come to the aid of their own colleagues? In cases like these, it is easy to see why even tenured faculty members fear the atmosphere of intimidation that the colleges have produced. Why stand up for faculty rights when your head could be next on the chopping block?

FIRE welcomes these various organizations to the field of adjuncts’ individual rights. As we approach our ten-year anniversary, it is good to know that more and more organizations are seeing the need to address the violations of individual rights on college campuses, the nation’s premier marketplaces of ideas.