Point of view

UNC’s Nichol not the only professor fighting the academic freedom battle

April 17, 2014 

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Conservative UNCW professor Mike Adams was denied a promotion seven years ago and has been waging a court fight since.

TRAVIS LONG — TRAVIS LONG

Gene Nichol, former dean of UNC’s law school and now a professor there, might have a valid complaint.

An outspoken column last October led UNC’s administrators to rap his knuckles. They asked him to add a tagline to each of his columns saying that he does not speak for the university, and they asked him to give them a “heads-up” before publishing something especially controversial.

Was his academic freedom abrogated? Some in academia and the media may think so.

Nichol is known for his left-wing, no-holds-barred columns, which he has been writing for The N&O for years. But that October column went pretty far. He said that Gov. Pat McCrory is no better than three segregationist governors, calling McCrory a “a 21st century successor to Maddox, Wallace and Faubus.”

The article appeared two days after the governor attended the installation of the school’s new chancellor. Not only did it embarrass university officials, but it evoked angry reactions from friends and supporters of the governor, who viewed the column as a last straw after Nichol’s continuing attacks on Republicans.

Administration officials were worried that Nichol’s scathing attacks might hurt the university’s funding. But no one said that Nichol should be fired, demoted or punished.

Now, here’s the academic freedom story you probably haven’t heard about.

Mike S. Adams, a professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, didn’t have to add a few words to his byline, as Nichol did. He suffered actual harm for expressing his views.

In 2006, Adams was denied a promotion to full professor at UNCW. He lost income as a result and experienced harassment and duplicitous treatment from his university.

Like Nichol, Mike Adams, who writes a column for the conservative website Townhall.com, does not mince words. Writing with sarcasm and barbed humor, he attacks feminists, advocates of gun control and other liberal targets. He does not hesitate to write pointedly about administrators at UNCW.

Certain that the university denied his promotion because he had expressed unpopular views, Adams sued UNCW in 2007. His lawsuit, supported by the Alliance Defending Freedom, argued that when he was an atheist and a liberal, his department praised and promoted him, but when his views changed, he lost favor and was denied promotion in retaliation for his columns. He has been conducting this lawsuit for seven years.

Adams lost a district court case in 2010 but appealed the decision to the Fourth Circuit. In this round, the American Association of University Professors, a progressive organization that undoubtedly would oppose many of his opinions, supported his appeal.

The AAUP contended that the district court had misinterpreted a Supreme Court decision (Garcetti v. Ceballos) restricting the free-speech rights of public employees. Along with the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education and the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression, AAUP argued that the Garcetti case should not be applied to university faculty.

Adams won the appeal and obtained a jury trial. This was a coup for a popular teacher – “witty, hilarious, knows what he’s talking about” is typical of his RateMyProfessors evaluations. The jury, meeting in Greenville agreed March 20 that Adams had been denied promotion to full professor in retaliation for expressing his Christian and conservative beliefs.

A couple of weeks later, the judge in the case did something even more surprising, perhaps historic – he ordered UNCW to make Adams a full professor with an additional $50,000 in back pay. This is a highly unusual directive to a university.

The university is considering an appeal, but both parties are awaiting the judge’s decision about attorney fees. Because the case was filed as a civil rights case, the court will award the successful plaintiff an appropriate amount of attorney fees, which the university will have to pay.

So, we have two academic freedom issues. One is about adding a few words and giving a “heads-up” to the people you work for; the other is about a seven-year battle to end retaliatory discrimination that deprived a person of income and academic stature. Which is worth more attention?

Jane S. Shaw is president of the John W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy in Raleigh.

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