AAUP Issues Report On Adjunct Philosophy Professor Allegedly Fired For High Standards

Nathaniel Bork was an adjunct philosophy professor at the Community College of Aurora (CCA) for six years when he was fired a few weeks into the Fall 2016 semester. As reported here last November, Bork claimed that he was fired for refusing to lower the educational standards in his courses and threatening to complain about curricular changes (the “Gateway to Success” curriculum) at the school.

At the time, he was quoted by the Aurora Sentinel as saying:

I was told, ‘here’s the textbook you will teach from…here’s how you will teach, you will not assign hard papers, you will not make the class difficult…’ Basically, they turned the entire class into a unit that could be done by anybody. There was almost no freedom involved whatsoever by the time this program got implemented.

The American Association of University Professors (AAUP) expressed concern about the case at the time and has now issued a report on it (via Inside Higher Ed and The Chronicle of Higher Education), discussing Bork’s case at the precarious status of adjuncts generally.

The report raises several areas of concern:

  • Academic Due Process: [Policy regarding non-adjunct faculty] lists among the grounds for dismissal “incompetence after notice and opportunity to improve.” Although Mr. Bork’s classification as an adjunct instructor left him outside the scope of this policy, the administration cited something very much like instructional incompetence as its justification for Mr. Bork’s summary dismissal (a point discussed in more detail below); and as documented above, the administration did not afford him any opportunity to improve prior to dismissing him. This was despite his six years of service at the institution with—by his own account and that of his colleague and lead philosophy faculty member Mr. David Spiegel—consistently strong evaluations of his teaching.
  • Academic Freedom in TeachingWe note for now that it is clear that the curriculum Mr. Bork implemented in fall 2016 was not one he would have chosen had he been afforded the freedom to choose, and it is very much open to question whether the faculty group would have chosen to implement this curriculum absent direction from the administration. Several current and former CCA faculty members indicated to the investigating committee that the administration told them, during summer 2016, that if they were unwilling to implement the new Gateway to Success curriculum, they should seek employment elsewhere.
  • Academic Freedom in Intramural SpeechThe timeline of events raises the question of retaliation. As detailed above, Mr. Bork had drafted a letter to the Higher Learning Commission, CCA’s accreditor, stating his concerns about the new curriculum. According to his account, he circulated the draft to CCA administrators on Wednesday, September 7, in the interest, he said, of soliciting their feedback regarding the accuracy of various factual claims he had made. Dr. Pace and Mr. Keith, the achievement coach, observed Mr. Bork’s Philosophy 111 class on Friday, September 9. On the basis of the observation reports filed in connection with that classroom visit, the administration summarily dismissed Mr. Bork the following Wednesday, September 14 (after notifying him over the phone and in writing the previous day), exactly one week after he had circulated his draft HLC letter to college administrators… Against the appearance of retaliation, then, the administration asserts that a routine, coincidentally timed classroom observation uncovered evidence of instructional deficiencies so severe that they necessitated the immediate removal of the instructor… In sum, the CCA administration’s stated rationale for Mr. Bork’s summary dismissal strains credulity.
  • Conditions for Faculty GovernanceThe present case raises concerns about the faculty role in governance at CCA. In particular, the Gateway to Success curriculum appears to have been largely (or perhaps entirely) an administrative initiative… Although the faculty was involved in working out the details, the initial decision to redesign the curriculum, as well as decisions about the broad outlines of its implementation, was made by the administration and overseen by non–faculty members… The Gateway to Success curricular changes affected multiple lower-level humanities courses—encompassing a sizable proportion of some entering students’ programs of study at CCA—yet it is unclear whether anyone with professional expertise in curriculum design participated in their development. The Gateway to Success curriculum never went before a campus-wide faculty curriculum committee for approval. 

The AAUP report includes some more general conclusions based on this case:

Mr. Bork’s case, furthermore, illustrates a lack of academic freedom for part-time faculty members at institutions nationwide. A cannier administration might have let Mr. Bork finish the semester and then have declined to renew his contract. Insofar as this could have been done for exactly the reasons that appear to have motivated the CCA administration’s summary mid-semester dismissal of Mr. Bork, it would have constituted just as severe a violation of academic freedom. But the administration would have enjoyed the plausible deniability afforded by policies and procedures that enshrine arbitrary nonrenewal of appointments for adjunct faculty members.

As the proportion of the faculty employed in adjunct and other contingent positions grows, the overall academic freedom of America’s faculty shrinks. The private business model of academic employment, in which managers exercise complete control over the working conditions and appointment status of those they oversee, is already a reality for the majority of those who teach at US colleges and universities. If we wish to maintain academic freedom for the ever-shrinking proportion of the faculty who enjoy tenure-track and tenured appointments, we must extend the guarantee of academic freedom—through changes in institutional policies, professional norms, and, ultimately, personal attitudes—to those who do not.

The full report is here.

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Richard Russell Wood
Richard Russell Wood
7 years ago

If I may kibbutz? (As an interested layperson?)

When I attended the University of Pittsburgh in the early ’70s, regarding the issue of teaching v. research a distinguished phil. prof suggested that “teaching” (in this case, philosophy) might be better relegated to lower-tier institutions. In fact, iirc, he specifically cited community colleges.

I mention this because what appears to have happened here was a ham-handed attempt to get the prof to conform to lower expectations from his students.

What – I believe – should have happened is a discussion between the professor and the administration about the mission of the college, and how best to ease and encourage his students into a very hard but ultimately satisfying and utilitarian subject requiring deep and rigorous thinking.

Was the college wrong? Of course it was.

Still, it appears that the college missed an opportunity to retain a professional who is serious about his subject, but that also the professor missed an opportunity to gently “lead” the clumsy administrators into recognizing the opportunity to impart critical thinking skills to its students, skills so badly needed in today’s world.

Richard Russell Wood, B.S., Mathematics and Philosophy 1974

7 years ago

As much as I despise the college’s actions, the fact of the matter is that adjuncts are on a semester by semester contract (I know, having been an adjunct for 12 years), with no guarantee of renewal. It’s like a lease that expires after 12 months — the landlord chooses not to renew — end of discussion. Go back to what we now accept (I do not) as employment at will, and I see no legal reason to protest this release. It is not uncommon for departments to have a set book list for their classes for various reasons, as well, though I do question such a policy for various reasons including academic freedom.

On the moral side, I am 110% behind Mr Bork, deplore the action of the administration, regardless of the reasons.

asst prof
asst prof
Reply to  DocFE
7 years ago

They fired him partway through the semester. So if it was a semester contract, there could still be grounds (in the contract) for action.