Last fall, Sissy Bradford, an adjunct instructor who taught criminology at Texas A&M University-San Antonio, questioned why crosses were being placed near the public university’s entrance. Last month, she was informed that the university would not offer her any courses to teach in the fall semester. Bradford insists there is a connection, but university officials deny any link.
Though critics in online message boards have accused Bradford, who is Jewish, of being intolerant of Christianity, she said that is not the case. "I think I’m the only instructor these students ever had who required them to know passages from the Bible," she said, "because we base so much of our criminal justice policy on it."
Now, she is out of work, and the campus has been cast into a heated debate about academic freedom and the separation of church and state.
A&M-San Antonio was established as a stand-alone institution in 2009, and it moved to its permanent location in fall 2011.
Among the eye-catching features of the campus is the Torre de Esperanza, or Tower of Hope, near the university’s entrance.
Built on private land by a private company, the tower was paid for with public money and prominently features the university’s seal. So, when small crosses—which had not been included in designs previously shared with the university—were added to the tower last fall, Bradford objected.
On Oct. 31, Bradford e-mailed William Bush, the interim head of the School of Arts and Sciences, stating that she was offended by the addition. "I hope the crosses will be reconsidered and removed, that the message of our most prominent structure is one of hope universally; Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu," she wrote.
Bradford also contacted a local reporter to help determine the financing of the tower. The ensuing article caused a stir on campus and drew the attention of groups like the local chapters of Americans United, which advocates for the separation of church and state, and the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas.
"When students come on campus, they come with varied religious and nonreligious back- grounds, and a public institution needs to be neutral when it comes to religious issues," said Eric Lane, president of the San Antonio chapter of Americans United.
But Marilu Reyna, associate vice president for university communications, said that because the crosses were not on university property or paid for with state funds, "It wasn’t our decision to make."
The developer ultimately removed the crosses because of the complaints. "I knew I was going to be seen as the bad guy who brought them down," Bradford said.
She received hate mail. One typed letter included a handwritten message—"Just so you know how disgusting I think you are!" An e-mail asked, "Do you have the right to live?"
The tone of the debate, particularly on Facebook and elsewhere online, intensified. Students and faculty members expressed offense and outrage at Bradford’s actions.
Cresencio Davila, a former student regent for the Texas A&M University system and former student body president at A&M-San Antonio, who was pursuing a master’s degree, was particularly vocal. He called for T-shirts to be made saying: "Don’t be a Sissy. Practice tolerance."
Bradford, who said that the university failed to enforce its code of conduct throughout the ordeal, worried that Davila’s history of student leadership opened the door for other students. "They saw that it was done, and that the university wasn’t going to react in any way," she said.
Some students said the campus environment turned toxic. "There were people that were openly ugly to other students," said Tosha Covington, who graduated this spring. "If you supported Professor Bradford in any way, they were hateful."
Covington said the university did not do enough to counter a perceived atmosphere of intolerance. "There was no town hall meeting, no open forum," she said. "It was us versus them, and no one wanted to hear the other side."
Rebecca Robertson, the legal and policy director for the ACLU of Texas, said the situation is not unique in that people willing to stand up "are often subjected to backlash."
Davila, who said that most students he talked to did not take issue with the crosses, shrugged off the allegations of misconduct. "If a difference of opinion and me not being afraid to voice it is somehow mistreating her," he said, "then I don’t really know what to say."
Bradford alleged that concerns for her safety were not taken seriously by university officials or the university police. As an example, she pointed to an initial version of a report by Brent Snow, the provost and vice president for academic affairs, who investigated her claims and concluded they were not substantiated. The report repeatedly referred to Bradford as Stephanie, her middle name. When she asked him about it via e-mail, he apologized and offered to correct the error, but not the conclusions, saying, "I remember calling someone, but I don’t remember who at this point, to inquire as to your official name."
Maria Hernandez Ferrier, the president of A&M-San Antonio, said university administrators conducted themselves in a professional manner. The police department ran an investigation, which was submitted to the Bexar County district attorney’s office and the local FBI office for review, she said.
"The safety and security of our students and all of our campus community is paramount to the free exchange and discussion of ideas that may challenge our existing thoughts and opinions," she said.
Some have questioned that commitment in light of the news that Bradford would not return in the fall. She was told in an e-mail hours after a local newspaper ran a story questioning the university’s handling of the situation. University officials said they were not aware of the article when they made their decision.
Last week, Robert Kreiser, senior program officer of the American Association of University Professors, sent Ferrier a letter questioning the university’s policies and expressing "concern that Bradford’s dismissal may have been in violation of her academic freedom."
Peter Bonilla, the associate director of the individual rights defense program at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a Philadelphia-based organization, sent a similar letter, warning that they are "prepared to use all resources at our disposal to ensure a just outcome in this case."
Bradford, who has a lawyer, is not sure if she will take any action.
Reyna said adjuncts serve on a semester-by-semester basis and are not guaranteed a renewal. "We are growing at an unprecedented rate, and we are looking for professors to replace the adjunct faculty," she said.
Bradford, who has received teaching awards from the university system and higher-than-average student evaluations, had already informed the university that she intended to leave at the end of 2012.
Though she had previously been told that she would be teaching four courses in the fall, officials said this was done on a tentative basis. Twenty adjunct faculty members were not renewed for next semester.
Bush and other officials have taken issue with allegations that Bradford’s exit had anything to do with the debate surrounding the crosses.
"The notion that I would retaliate against any faculty member, adjunct or tenure-track, for expressing their personal views, is belied by any actions I’ve taken in my academic career as a teacher, a scholar and an administrator," he said.