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OPINION

Academic freedom and adjunct instructors who aren’t so free to speak

We’re seeing more and more examples of adjunct faculty members who have been “un-hired” because of instruction in the classroom and speech outside it.

The faculty at Hamline University in Minnesota is calling for its president, Fayneese Miller, to resign for her handling of a Muslim student's objection to a depiction of the Prophet Muhammad being shown in an ancient art course.Jerry Holt/Associated Press

Until a few weeks ago most people had never heard of Hamline University. It’s a small liberal arts college nestled in St. Paul. Now, it’s the center of a fiery debate over academic freedom and how college instructors should respect the religious convictions of their students.

But the inciting incident highlights a more fundamental threat to academic freedom: the ease with which universities can fire untenured faculty — the majority of instructors at American universities today — on almost any pretense.

The situation at Hamline began in October when Erika López Prater, an art history adjunct at the university, showed a medieval Islamic painting of the Prophet Muhammad in her online class. Many devout Muslims consider pictures of Muhammad to be offensive, as they’re often thought to be potentially idolatrous. According to the Hamline student newspaper, López Prater did everything an instructor is supposed to do when presenting controversial material. She issued a content warning, letting students know about the potentially offensive image beforehand. She explained the purpose of displaying the image. She even warned the students in advance that the image would be shown and gave them the opportunity to shut off their cameras when showing the picture.

This wasn’t enough. A student complained to university administration. The day after the class, López Prater’s choice to display the image was called “undeniably inconsiderate, disrespectful and Islamophobic” in an e-mail from David Everett, the university’s associate vice president of inclusive excellence. López Prater’s adjunct contract was not renewed for a new semester.

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After López Prater sued the university for religious discrimination and defamation, Everett walked back his comments. But she is still out of a job.

People usually picture the typical university instructor as a tenured professor. In truth, most university instructors are not and are ineligible for tenure. According to the American Association of University Professors, these academics — often called “contingent faculty” — made up about 67 percent of all university instructors in 2021. Lecturers or similar academics (like me) are often hired full time on yearly or multiyear contracts and enjoy some benefits. Adjunct faculty, by contrast, often work part time and are typically hired on a semester-by-semester basis.

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The reasons behind this are complicated, but one stands out: Tenure-track faculty positions are expensive, and contingent faculty usually aren’t. Why should a university employ someone who teaches only two or three courses per semester when they can get another person to teach twice that number, often for half the cost — or less?

There is currently a glut of PhD holders in many disciplines. There are 10 or 20 other trained academics who are willing and able to do any adjunct professor’s or non-tenure-track instructor’s job. Since these contracts can be renewed or not more or less at discretion, college and university administrators have little or no incentive to protect their employees during such controversies.

The fragility of this kind of employment is a serious threat to academic freedom. An essential component of this freedom is the “freedom to discuss all relevant matters in the classroom.” Surely López Prater’s display of an Islamic image of Prophet Muhammad is relevant to a discussion on Islamic art.

López Prater’s case isn’t an isolated one. Examples of adjunct faculty members who have been “un-hired” because of instruction in the classroom and speech outside it abound.

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Take the case of Michael Phillips, voted “Educator of the Year” by the East Texas Historical Association in October 2021. Phillips taught at Collin College in northern Texas and specializes in the history of American race relations. Though he has the title of professor, Collin College has no system of tenure. Instead, Phillips worked on a series of three-year contracts.

Phillips had clashed with the Collin administration numerous times. The final straw came in 2021, when Phillips was notified that his three-year contract would not be renewed. This notification came a mere four days after he received a reprimand for a post on his Facebook. In the post, he criticized the college’s COVID-19 policy, drawing attention to the fact that the faculty were expressly forbidden from “requesting, requiring, or recommending” face masks. He was told that this amounted to insubordination. Currently, Phillips is involved in litigation over his un-hiring, alleging a violation of his First Amendment rights.

Here’s the problem. Most university instruction is carried out by contingent faculty like López Prater and Phillips. If these instructors are in reasonable fear of losing their contracts if a student complains about controversial materials, or if some college administrator decides they don’t like what the instructor writes on Facebook, then they don’t enjoy meaningful academic freedom. And since they make up most university instructors, most instructors don’t meaningfully enjoy academic freedom.

What can be done about this?

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One course of action is for colleges and universities to adopt the Chicago principles, which sets out principles that guarantee freedom of expression. This extends even to ideas that members of the university community find “unwelcome, disagreeable, or even deeply offensive.” Universities can make it clear that this applies to all faculty, whether eligible for tenure or not, full-time or not.

Another is to make sure that academic freedom portions of collective bargaining agreements for contingent faculty are vigorously enforced. The collective bargaining agreement for adjuncts at Hamline University includes a clause ensuring academic freedom, calling it “essential to the search for truth and its exposition.”

The role of a university in encouraging unfettered expression of ideas is often overstated. Some guardrails are inevitable. But if these institutions can’t preserve even so basic a part of academic freedom as this, they are institutions of learning in name only.

Stephen Harrop is a lecturer in the Department of Philosophy at Mount Holyoke College.