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Bill Maxwell

Adjuncts' academic freedom snuffed out

On four different occasions during my teaching career, I was an adjunct professor — twice at major universities, twice at community colleges. Back then, adjuncts made up about 40 percent of the nation's college professors. Now, they account for a whopping 70 percent.

Although the use of adjuncts has increased, one thing remains the same: Adjuncts are still treated like stepchildren and orphans on their campuses. Most adjuncts can accept the low pay because they need the job. Most can accept the high number of students they are assigned, and most can accept the lack of adequate office space and other amenities the tenured professors take for granted.

But the one insult that an increasing number of adjuncts across the nation cannot abide is the continued lack of academic freedom.

The American Association of University Professors 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure, which has not changed, is clear: Professors, full time and part time, should be at liberty to discuss relevant subjects with their students and comment on their institutions' operations and policies without retribution.

Based on my personal experiences and based on reports of recent trends, adjuncts increasingly are being fired and not being rehired because administrators do not like catching flak for what their part-timers say in the classroom.

In an article titled, "Adjuncts fight back over academic freedom," the Chronicle of Higher Education points out that most of the instructors who have been fired typically erred by discussing third-rail issues such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, religion, homosexuality and race.

One of the most egregious cases of adjunct mistreatment is that of Steven Bitterman, who taught Western civilization at Southwestern Community College in Iowa from 2001 until last year. He ran into trouble after three students complained to the college's vice president that Bitterman told his class the Old Testament story of Adam and Eve could be better understood if it were viewed as a myth.

"The vice president said the students and their parents had threatened to sue the school, and sue me, and she said: 'We don't want that to happen, do we?' " Bitterman told the Chronicle. "She told me I was supposed to teach history, not religion, and that my services would no longer be needed."

After the American Humanist Association threw its weight behind Bitterman, according to the Chronicle, the college last month settled with the professor for $20,000 to avoid protracted litigation. The college's lawyer denied that Bitterman's right of academic freedom had been violated.

At North Carolina State University, Terri Ginsberg said she had assurances last year that she would be considered for a tenure-track position if she accepted a nine-month, full-time professorship in cinema-media studies. She assumed that she was doing fine until she expressed her pro-Palestinian views during the showing of a Palestinian-produced film that she introduced as part of a Middle Eastern film series. Ironically, she was hired as the program's curator.

Ginsberg was shown the door, she told the Chronicle, because officials disagreed with her views. To no avail, she filed a grievance. Because she no longer is employed by N.C. State, her grievance lacks merit, the chancellor said.

As the number of adjuncts continues to increase, the AAUP, along with other organizations, is becoming more active in the movement to protect the academic freedom of part-timers. The unspoken truth is that adjuncts do not enjoy academic freedom because they are not tenured.

Gary Rhoades, the next general secretary of the AAUP, told the Chronicle that denying part-timers academic freedom is counterproductive. "We're compromising the quality of a college education," he said, "if we're saying to a large portion of the academic work force: Don't offend anyone."

Growing numbers of adjuncts are filing lawsuits, and they are gaining supporters. The mistreatment of these professors is an ugly stain on academia. Many schools, including some prestigious ones, could not function as well as they do without these part-timers. Yet officials abuse this vulnerable work force.

All Americans who value higher education and trust colleges and universities to teach our young scholars should value and support the rights of adjuncts.

Adjuncts' academic freedom snuffed out 10/11/08 [Last modified: Friday, October 17, 2008 5:13pm]

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