The story of the dismissal of Texas A&M University-San Antonio (TAMU-SA) lecturer Sissy Bradford has garnered much attention—and for good reason. Within hours of the publication of an article in which Bradford criticized the university’s handling of threats against her, Bradford was informed that she would not be teaching at the university for the coming fall semester. Is this revenge for speaking out? You be the judge, but it sure looks like it.
Since 2010, Bradford has lectured in TAMU-SA’s sociology and criminology departments, teaching three or four course sections per semester. Last fall, she became a target of criticism and backlash after voicing opposition to the erection of two crosses near the entrance to the campus. As Inside Higher Ed‘s Scott Jaschik writes:
[Bradford] became a public figure when she complained about crosses that had been installed on a tower that was part of the entrance to the campus. The crosses were put there by a developer, not the university, but Bradford maintained that they were inappropriate for the entrance to a public university campus. Americans United for Separation of Church and State backed her — and after that organization sent a series of letters to San Antonio and university officials, the developer removed the crosses. That was in November.
As the debate played out over church-state issues, Bradford started to receive threatening e-mails. One of the e-mails reflects the tone. It started with: "As a professor, do you have the right to live?" And it described Bradford ending up in a coffin, concluding "After that you will reign with your father Satan." That e-mail message and a series of others were turned over to the university police department, Bradford said.
Bradford feared for her safety, and was dissatisfied with TAMU-SA’s handling of the vitriol directed at her. Bradford shared her criticisms with The Current, a San Antonio newsweekly, which published a story on the case on May 16. The Current relayed, for example, that
While [Bradford] showed up to report the harassment, officers at the University Police Department refused to take her statements, she told the Current.
Weeks went by. Students took to walking her to class and to her car, she said, since campus security was not available. Her request for access to an office for adjunct faculty, Bradford said, was refused by the administration. [...]
After taking her complaint higher up to A&M at College Station, Bradford said she was finally able to file a statement with UPD on December 5. In a two-page Voluntary Statement, she states, "I am being stalked & harassed & threatened by student(s) & community members because I am not a Christian. There exists a clear & prolonged pattern of unwanted communication, contact, threats, & invasion of privacy."
In spite of her concerns about her safety and TAMU-SA’s response, Bradford accepted an assignment to teach four criminology sections at TAMU-SA in the fall 2012 semester—two sections of a course on "Community Perspectives in Crime" and two sections of a course on "Social Deviance." A February 2 email from departmental colleague Durant Franzen confirms this. An April 2 email from William S. Bush, interim head of TAMU-SA’s School of Arts and Sciences, also confirms this, telling her, "we still have you on the schedule for fall."
Bush’s email is particularly noteworthy because it was Bush who on May 16, just hours after The Current took Bradford’s story public, sent her this email:
I’m writing to inform you that the School of Arts and Sciences will not be able to offer you any classes in the fall semester.
If you wish to discuss this matter further, please submit a written request to Dr. Brent Snow, Provost and VP for Academic Affairs.
Please note that he will be traveling abroad until Tuesday, May 29.
As Scott Jaschik writes in Inside Higher Ed, Bush claimed not to know of the article when he informed Bradford of the decision:
A spokeswoman for Texas A&M-San Antonio said that Bush was not aware of the article in The Current when he decided who would receive classes for the fall, and that Bradford was among 20 adjuncts who were not offered employment for the fall. The spokeswoman did not indicate why Bradford would have received class assignments and then have them removed. But she said that "adjunct faculty members are all appointed on a semester-by-semester basis as needed by the university. This is a common practice. There is no expectation of continued employment."
Many know, of course, that the job security of adjunct instructors like Bradford is nowhere near what it is for tenured professors and that universities may (and frequently do) decide not to rehire them for myriad reasons—or no reason at all. But this does not mean that adjunct professors possess fewer First Amendment rights than their tenured counterparts. Adverse employment action taken against adjunct instructors on the basis of their protected expression as citizens violates the First Amendment. As we’ve made clear in numerous cases involving non-tenured faculty, adverse employment action includes the decision not to rehire faculty who have a reasonable expectation of being rehired. Bradford has taught multiple sections each semester for the past two years. As Jaschik notes, "she has strong student evaluations (which she shared with Inside Higher Ed) and she has been honored for her teaching." She has multiple emails confirming the university’s expectations that her teaching would continue into this fall. It’s hard not to conclude that, had her critical comments not appeared in The Current, Sissy Bradford would be continuing her teaching at TAMU-SA this fall.
TAMU-SA is framing the decision to part with Bradford as a business decision—part of the reality of being an adjunct with "no expectation of continued employment," as the spokesperson put it. Generally speaking, TAMU-SA cannot, consistent with its obligations under the First Amendment, rid itself of instructors simply because the institution deems protected expression embarrassing. Given the timeline of events and Bradford’s clear evidence that TAMU-SA was fully planning on employing her this fall, TAMU-SA does not deserve to be taken at its word.
FIRE will have more on this case as it develops.