Lisa Durden talked about her experience with Essex County College in an interview at FIRE's Philadelphia headquarters earlier this month. (File / Chris Maltby for FIRE)
Last summer, Essex County College terminated one of its adjunct faculty members, Lisa Durden, after she appeared on Fox News to debate Tucker Carlson about a Black Lives Matter event. Essex’s president claimed that the college had been “immediately inundated with feedback from students, faculty and prospective students and their families expressing frustration, concern and even fear” about “the views expressed by a College employee,” burdening administrators with the “responsibility to investigate those concerns.”
Earlier this week, FIRE published the records we obtained through a public records request — records obtained only after we sued the college for ignoring our requests. Those records showed that, contrary to having been “immediately inundated” with feedback, Essex received one critical email in the first thirteen days after Durden’s appearance on Fox News.
Yesterday, Essex provided this fact-lite statement to The Intercept:
In the past week, statements have been publicized which mischaracterize Essex County College’s actions last summer relating to an adjunct who formerly taught at the College.
Essex County College utilizes hundreds of adjunct instructors each semester and, as a matter of course, each is advised they will receive tentative teaching assignments that can be withdrawn at any time.
In addition, the College provided a good faith response consistent with the Open Public Records Act when responding to records requests pertaining to this matter.
Essex County College is entering our 50th year of providing a top quality education to Essex County residents and was ranked in the top 50 community colleges in the nation for 2017 by College Choice. We will continue to provide our students with the best education possible as well as the tools to become future leaders in whichever field they choose.
As a general rule, a college’s claims of being mischaracterized are most credible when they’re accompanied by some explanation of how the college is being mischaracterized. Essex doesn’t attempt to provide any such explanation. Before we published our story, we shared our analysis of the documents with Essex and twice invited their response. Essex chose not to respond to our request then, and its response now doesn’t explain the gulf between its claims and what its records show.
More worryingly, Essex doesn’t even bother to offer the usual perfunctory statement about how they support freedom of expression, but nevertheless had to take some censorious action. Instead, Essex says that its “hundreds of adjunct instructors” can lose their teaching assignments “at any time.”
That’s not true. A public institution can’t withdraw appointments for a reason that violates the First Amendment rights of the professor, which is precisely what happened to Durden. The implication of Essex’s statement, then, is that none of its “hundreds of adjunct instructors” retain First Amendment rights. In the absence of a tenure system or administrators willing to stand up for adjunct faculty members when controversy arises, the First Amendment is the only legal protection adjunct faculty have.
Essex’s administration did not stand up for Durden. To the contrary, they claimed that a controversy had “immediately” impacted their campus — a claim that is not reflected in their own records — and cited the “fear” created by Durden’s views as a justification for taking adverse action against her, ultimately resulting in her termination. This action is inconsistent with Essex’s obligations under the First Amendment and could needlessly jeopardize Essex’s already at-risk accreditation, which requires Essex to demonstrate a commitment to freedom of expression.
As for Essex’s claim that it responded in “good faith” and “consistent with” New Jersey’s public records law? Essex failed to respond even though it asked for (and was given) numerous extensions, stopped responding even when we warned them that we were willing to file a lawsuit, and only produced the requested records after we filed that lawsuit — a lawsuit we waited to file until just shy of the statute of limitations. You be the judge.