Free speech on campus? Not for adjunct faculty, it seems
Debates over free speech on campus have been raging for a couple of years now, focused mostly on issues like controversial guest speakers, tolerance for hearing different views, and political correctness. But one specific group on campus seems to be particularly vulnerable when it comes to expressing views freely: adjunct professors. Because if they say something incendiary in public or on social media, it just might cost them their jobs.
That's happened several times in the past few months, as multiple instructors have lost their university teaching roles after expressing their opinions. Instructors like these:
- Lisa Durden was fired by Essex County College in New Jersey after a heated appearance on Tucker Carlson's show on Fox News where she defended a black-only Black Lives Matter Memorial Day party. College president Anthony Munroe said he believed "racism cannot be fought with more racism," according to the New York Daily News.
- Kathy Dettwyler, an adjunct anthropology professor at the University of Delaware, came under fire after posting on Facebook that Otto Warmbier in a coma. He died days later.) Twitter users lashed out at Dettwyler and called for the University of Delaware to fire her.
Indeed, the university announced that Dettwyler would not be rehired and distanced itself from her comments in a press release.
- Ruthie Robertson, an adjunct professor of international politics at Brigham Young University-Idaho, was apparently fired for a private Facebook post she wrote in support of LGBT rights, according to the Boston Globe.
In the post, Robertson said that "this is my official announcement and declaration that I believe heterosexuality and homosexuality are both natural and neither is sinful," contradicting the view of the conservative BYU, which is associated with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. BYU officials reportedly asked Robertson to take the post down. After refusing, was told she would not be returning to teach for the fall semester.
- Kevin Allred, an adjunct at Montclair State University in New Jersey, was relieved of the two courses he was set to teach this fall after tweeting that he wished someone would shoot Trump.
- Lars Maishack, a lecturer in history at Fresno State University in California, was not rehired for this fall, reported the Los Angeles Times, after a controversy of a tweet his posted last April with this statement: “To save American democracy, Trump must hang. The sooner and the higher, the better.”
- Kenneth Storey, a visiting assistant professor of sociology at the University of Tampa, was let go from the courses he was set to teach after tweets suggesting the destruction of Hurricane Harvey was "karma" for Texas due to political conservatism and support for President Trump in the state.
The common denominator in these cases is the professors' adjunct status.
Adjuncts are not full members of a university faculty -- they're instructors, occasionally visiting professors, often part-time or temporary. A key distinction when it comes to job security is that they don't have the protections of tenure and are not even on a tenure track.
Without tenure, it's relatively easy for a university to dismiss you outright or choose not to rehire you.
Still, according to the American Association of University Professors, the expression of an opinion is not grounds for firing unless "it clearly demonstrates the faculty member's unfitness for his or her position." And that goes for both tenured and non-tenured professors.
Benjamin McKean, an assistant Ohio State University professor, said in an email to USA TODAY College that in cases like Dettwyler's and Robinson's, the consequences were not in line with the policy outlined by the AAUP. He notes that adjunct professors don't often enjoy the same protections as tenured ones.
"As I am familiar with them, none of the most prominent recent controversies have clearly demonstrated the faculty member's unfitness," McKean says. "In fact, many of the professors who have been targeted recently had reputations as excellent teachers."
Kellie Bancalari is a student at George Washington University and a USA TODAY College digital producer.
This story originally appeared on the USA TODAY College blog, a news source produced for college students by student journalists. The blog closed in September of 2017.