Adjuncts and God: Why Are 2 Instructors Out of Jobs?

The adage says that you’re supposed to avoid talk of religion and politics in polite company, but the topics are hard to avoid if you teach Western civilization. And the topics may be especially dangerous for adjuncts.

An instructor at Southwestern Community College is charging that the Iowa institution fired him last week for having offended some students by telling them that he wouldn’t teach the Bible as being literally true. And on Friday, the University of Colorado at Boulder chapter of the American Association of University Professors issued a report charging that an adjunct there had not been reappointed in retaliation for disputes with department colleagues who thought he was too religious and too conservative. Officials of both institutions dispute the charges.

Steve Bitterman has been teaching at Southwestern since 2001, and said he’s never had any trouble with students in his courses. He’s an adjunct who teaches history, while also teaching philosophy at Metropolitan Community College, in Nebraska.

This fall, he is teaching Western civilization at Southwestern’s Red Oak campus, and his lectures are broadcast to students at the Osceola campus, with a live hook-up so he can see students. Much of early Western civilization focuses on the myths and beliefs of ancient peoples. Gilgamesh was no problem for students, Bitterman said. But when he got to the Bible on Tuesday, a student walked out of the Osceola section when, Bitterman said, when he wouldn’t agree with her that the story of the Garden of Eden was historically true. Several other students appeared disturbed by the incident, he said. From their questions and statements, he believes that they are evangelical Christians.

“A few of the students thought I was knocking their religion by not promoting it,” he said. “They were upset that I didn’t say that the Bible was literally true.” Bitterman said that he treats the Bible as a historically significant, important work, but that he does not accord it status beyond that. “That really seemed to come as a shock to some of them,” he said.

On Thursday, he said, Linda Wild, a vice president, called him, told him that several of the students and the parents had threatened an unspecified lawsuit, and fired him. Bitterman said Wild said he would be paid for the sessions he had taught and no more. “She said that the parents said that I was there to teach history and not religion and that she agreed,” Bitterman said.

Whether teaching about the Bible or the Reformation or many other topics, Bitterman said that it would be impossible to teach a Western civilization survey course without covering religious topics. Of administrators who fired him and parents who wanted him gone, he said “I assume that they don’t know much history.”

Various administrators at the college did not respond to messages seeking comment. But Barbara Crittenden, Southwestern’s president, told The Des Moines Register: “I can assure you that college understands our employees’ free speech rights. There was no action taken that violated the First Amendment.”

In Colorado, meanwhile, the AAUP has weighed in on behalf of Phil Mitchell, whose contract to teach history was not renewed this spring after a period of 17 years teaching in a program that provides some for-credit courses in dormitories. The AAUP report — published on the College Freedom blog — states that Mitchell enjoyed high rankings from students and peer evaluations of his teaching for most of his tenure, but was briefly in danger of losing his job in 2005, which prompted him to speak out against his department.

The report goes on to say that the AAUP considers Mitchell to have lost his job in retaliation for the statements he made at the time and because of “hostility” in the history department to his conservative religious and political views. The report cites a history of glowing reviews that changed radically at the time that Mitchell charges that some professors started to become concerned about his religious views and his sharing them with students.

Bronson Hilliard, a spokesman for the university, disputed the AAUP report. He said that Mitchell has been given the chance to present evidence of religious bias against him to a series of Colorado administrators, up to the university system president, and has produced “absolutely no evidence.” Hilliard acknowledged that Mitchell was popular with students, but said that the decision not to rehire him had to do with issues of academic rigor, not philosophy. “He was simply not leveling up and following the agreed upon curriculum,” Hilliard said.

Faculty members were concerned that the dormitory-based courses weren’t serious enough and wanted more writing added to them. Mitchell wouldn’t go along, despite “repeated dialogue,” Hilliard said. “Dr. Mitchell didn’t want to go along.”

Mitchell, who has encouraged campus groups to demand his reinstatement, said Sunday that the AAUP report backed his claims and that the administration’s defense that he was not providing enough rigor was “sheer nonsense.”

Scott Jaschik

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