‘I’m not the ideal poster boy’

By on December 20, 2005

Before he became an unlikely cause celebre, Thomas Klocek was an anonymous foot soldier in the bookish garrison of the ivory tower.

The job title may be “adjunct,” but their myriad ranks are a bulwark of higher education. They teach the introductory courses the permanent faculty disdains. That frees tenured professors to do research and work with graduate students. It also helps balance the budget.

Adjuncts are paid by the course, at academia’s equivalent of Wal-Mart wages. At DePaul University, where Klocek long taught, he reached a high of $34,000, one year. Other years, his earnings were $16,000. But he accepted his lot. Like other adjuncts, he loved the scholarly life, even if relegated to the fringes. He sensed being not quite fit for the wider world.

“I’m very solid in the 9th and 10th Centuries but a little shaky when it comes to the 21th Century,” said Klocek, whose specialty is medieval Slavic linguistics. At 59, he has the build of a snowman. Picture three flesh-and-blood spheres topped off with a scraggly Vandyke beard. His clothing is the stuff kids find in an attic and drape over their rendering of Frosty.

Elizabeth Marc spotted an ethereal quality when she met Klocek, two decades ago.

“He had all these questions about life,” said Marc, a pipe-organ tuner who once dated Klocek and who has remained a friend ever since. “I convinced him he was a born academic.”

The occasion of Klocek’s fall from grace was a student-activity fair, at the beginning of the 2004 fall semester. Among the organizations there was Students for Justice in Palestine, which supports the Arab side in the Israeli-Palestinian struggle. Klocek picked up a piece of its literature and was offended.

“I said to them, ‘Don’t you know there’s a Christian perspective too?’” Klocek recalled.

Salma Nassar, president of the group, recalled Klocek’s words differently. “He then continued to talk about how Christians have more of a right to Palestine than Muslims or Jews,” she told the DePaulia, the student newspaper.

Other students told the newspaper they tried keeping to the level of an intellectual discussion but Klocek was out of control. He said he tried getting the students to examine their premises but they were too angry to respond to the Socratic method, a time-honored pedagogical technique.

Shortly, Klocek broke off the argument by putting a thumb to his chin and flicking it forward. The students were offended by the gesture; he said he intended it to mean, “I’m out of here!”

There are places on Earth where the gesture has a stronger connotation, as Klocek might have known. A favorite course of his is: “Languages and Cultures of the World.”

Sometimes he can’t explain, even to himself, why he got into it with students. Other times, he sees the incident as a natural extension of his commitment to teaching.

“I was headed to the cafeteria for a cup of coffee; why didn’t I just keeping going?” Klocek said. “I don’t know. But if militant Zionists had been there, I might have engaged them too. Being a truth seeker means being a loner.”

When the students complained to Klocek’s dean, she and other administrators apologized profusely to them. She called in Klocek separately and suspended him, with pay, for the semester. She also noted of his 14 years at DePaul: “Never during that time have we experienced a situation in which he lacked judgment, abused his position as a teacher to force his ideas upon students or treated students with disrespect.”

A Mr. Chips character

Former students recall him as a gentle Mr. Chips character, among them Gil Raske, a DePaul security officer. “I’ve known him since 1996,” Raske said, “and never heard him raise his voice.”

After his suspension, Klocek and the university sparred over what it would take to get him back into a DePaul classroom. He was asked to apologize to the students; he wrote to the campus paper saying he had nothing to apologize for. He was asked to accept a “monitor” in his classes, which he found insulting.

“We seemed to amicably come to an agreement,” said Father Dennis Holtschneider, DePaul’s president. “Then he changed his mind.”

Finally, Klocek filed a lawsuit charging DePaul with slander and libel. He also scrambled to find work.

Now Klocek, who lives near Midway Airport, teaches two days a week, starting at 8 a.m. at Moraine Valley Community College in Palos Hills. After a class in Western civilization, he has a break until a 2 p.m. course in ethics. He spends the time between in an office about the size of a supply closet he shares with other part-timers, working on his long-deferred PhD dissertation “Logos Theology in the Work of Gregory Nazianzus and Its Application by Constantine-Cyrill in the 9th Century Slavic Mission.”

Someone taped to the wall of the windowless room a cartoon showing two professors watching a campus building going up. The caption reads: “What with construction costs and our salaries, thank God for adjuncts.”

Ties are minimal

Klocek gets $1,600 for a semester-long course. At about 3 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays, he packs up his teaching materials and heads to the parking lot.

“That’s western civ and this is ethics,” he said, nodding toward the shopping bags he carried. “The other one’s my thesis.”

A 50-minute drive from the south suburbs brings him to Richard J. Daley College on the Southwest Side. There he teaches back-to-back literature courses, beginning at 6:15 p.m. and finishing at 9:30.

That twice-weekly commute (in a car borrowed from a sister with whom he lives) gives Klocek time to reflect on the picaresque ups-and-downs of his life. Had he been a full-time faculty member, other professors might have taken up his cause.

“As an adjunct, you come and go without anyone noticing you,” Klocek said, swinging onto a highway to the city.

But his suspension did draw considerable attention beyond the campus. Conservatives have preached that American universities are bastions of an unchallenged liberalism. They rallied to Klocek’s defense, claiming he had been denied freedom of expression for challenging a popular campus issue, the Palestinians’ cause.

The National Review, the conservatives’ bible, made Klocek’s saga the centerpiece of a jeremiad on liberal excesses in higher education.

Some newfound friends have turned his predicament into a demonstration of Karl Marx’s proposition that history repeats itself: first as tragedy, a second time as farce. In his case, both are playing simultaneously.

In March, his lawyers called a press conference on the edge of DePaul’s North Side campus. Symbolizing the contention he had been denied freedom of speech, they had him bound and gagged.

“It was freezing out,” Klocek said. “I felt ridiculous.”

In October, the Chicago chapter of the Republican Jewish Coalition devoted a meeting to Klocek’s cause.

“People there saw it as a case of a little guy getting squashed by the big, powerful institution,” said Richard Baehr, chairman of the meeting.

Klocek saw something else in the 100 or so present.

“I told them I’d never been a room with so many Republicans,” he recalled. “I come from a world of old Democratic ward halls.”

He was born on the Southwest Side, the son of a bridge tender. A bright boy and an altar boy, he went to Catholic seminary but dropped out short of ordination.

“He was drifting,” said Marc, recalling how they met at a Russian Orthodox church. Both were spiritually shopping: Jewish by birth, she subsequently returned to that faith. Klocek again embraces Catholicism.

Having grown up near the University of Chicago, Marc saw a natural fit between Klocek’s personality and that heady campus. She hectored him into applying. He got a master’s degree and started on a PhD, but never finished a dissertation. Like others in that boat, he went out to teach, thinking he’d surely write it, someday. But he got caught up in his teaching — and now, in a controversy he had never dreamed of.

“I’m not the ideal poster boy,” Klocek said. “But freedom of speech is a cause worth fighting for.”

DePaul’s president agrees.

“I get accused of being against free speech,” Holtschneider said. “But freedom of speech for students requires they have a professor who treats them with respect.”

Klocek’s attorney, John Mauck, is representing him on a contingency basis: He doesn’t get paid unless Klocek wins. Mauck said he took the case because members of his firm, evangelical Christians, have a philosophical commitment to freedom of expression. DePaul’s lawyers are asking the court to dismiss the case without a trial, a defense attorney’s standard opening gambit. That motion is expected to be heard shortly.

Eking out a living

Meanwhile, Klocek does what he long has—eke out an adjunct’s living. Just before 6 p.m., he parked the car at Daley College. Sensing the handful of students in his first class hadn’t done the assignment, Klocek had them read it aloud. He has learned to cut a little slack for young people who come to class after a day’s work.

The second group had read the short stories by Chekhov. Some were fascinated by the tales, set in 19th Century Russia. So he could move beyond the text, doing what good teachers always have: taking young people for mental voyages to a world they might otherwise never know.

“You see, ‘The Lady With the Pet Dog’ is set in the Crimea, which is a resort area,” Klocek told them. “It’s a place where people come and go. It’s a place of loneliness.”

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Schools: DePaul University