Adjunct professor challenges mid-semester dismissal from a community college
The plotline of an adjunct professor’s recent firing from Chaffey College has more twists and turns than the average daytime drama. But beyond the bawdy details, Stefan Veldhuis’s supporters say his case is a powerful example of how the two-tier faculty system leaves those teaching off the tenure track vulnerable to termination at any time – even in the middle of the semester, for no clear reason.
“I spent seven years of my life [at Chaffey] performing at the highest level,” Veldhuis said. “Now, unless someone gives me some money, I will probably be homeless for Christmas. This is not a minor thing.”
Like most adjunct professors, Veldhuis never made a lot of money. But by teaching several political science classes each semester at Chaffey, plus additional courses at another Southern California college, the single dad was able to eke out a somewhat comfortable living for himself and his two young children. At the very least, their bills were paid. And although he was employed “at will” -- meaning he had no legal expectation of employment from Chaffey -- he had come to depend on working there.
But last week, Veldhuis got an unexpected phone call from Chaffey, letting him know that he was no longer employed there, effectively immediately. He had a class that night and says his contract was through spring 2014. When he asked for a reason, he said, an academic administrator told him he was no longer a “good fit.”
Veldhuis found that surprising, given his consistently strong evaluations from students and fellow faculty members. He and his supporters say the decision was motivated by personal, not professional, reasons and they’ve asked Chaffey for answers in emails and through Facebook.
“As a current Chaffey College student of 52 years and getting wiser, I'm sorry to hear the shocking news that Professor Veldhuis has been terminated,” Brian Umberson, a former student of Veldhuis’s, wrote in an email to Chaffey President Henry Shannon. After describing Veldhuis’s teaching style as engaging and student-centered, Umberson added: “I encourage you to reconsider this action -- or at least conduct an exit interview, so he knows the real reason for this action, which as I understand it has not been made clear. I can't imagine a place of education not doing what is common practice in the business world.”
Maynard Hearns, a former student of Veldhuis’s who is now a student at the University of California at Santa Cruz, wrote in an email to Shannon: “When I took Professor Veldhuis’s classes, I was debating whether or not to choose between political science and philosophy as a major focus. His insight into politics made a dizzying field approachable and a place of debate and learning for everyone involved. He has become a personal friend outside of the classroom and an asset in academia.”
The fired adjunct said that his professional troubles began late last spring, when he reported via email to Chaffey human resources staff member that another employee of the college had admitted to using Veldhuis’s classroom for sexual activities with a third, now former, employee. Veldhuis heard little about the complaint until this month, when a former student told him the college had interviewed her about a possible inappropriate relationship with him. He believes another employee may have lied about his relationship with that student in retaliation for his own complaint about sexual acts in the classroom, and that Chaffey failed to thoroughly investigate that claim before firing him.
The student, Erin Burson, said she knew Veldhuis from church and took two of his courses, but that they have never shared anything beyond a casual friendship. Increasingly frustrated and embarrassed by the college’s line of questioning, she said, she denied any kind of inappropriate relationship and scheduled a meeting with the college’s interim director of human resources, Susan Hardie, to clear her name, as well as Veldhuis’s. The college prohibits romantic relationships between faculty members and current students.
But hours before that meeting, Burson said, Chaffey canceled. Burson later said she found out that was the same day Veldhuis was fired.
In an email to Hardie she sent upon hearing that news, Burson wrote: “I have been robbed of my attempt to submit evidence to clear my name, which has been soiled by the employee in question but also you. You have done what you promised you would not do, which is take my indignation and resolve lightly and have placed my complaint on the back burner.”
Veldhuis said Chaffey is “corrupt,” but that he still would like to return there as professor. He loves his students and sees teaching as a calling, he said. He said he hopes to pursue Chaffey’s firing of him legally as a violation of the California Whistleblower Protection Act, which protects public employees who report “inappropriate governmental activity” perpetrated by other public employees.
The college denies Veldhuis was fired for being a whistleblower, and declined to offer any other reason for his firing. Spokeswoman Lisa Bailey said via email that personnel matters are private, but added: “With that said, I can assure you that the decision related to Mr. Veldhuis had nothing to do with the filing of any kind of complaint (whistleblower or otherwise). The [California Community College] District ensures that its employees’ rights, both legal and otherwise, are protected.… All decisions regarding the employment of District employees are fully compliant with federal and state regulations.”
The Legal Landscape
It’s unclear whether or not sexual activity in a classroom qualifies as a criminal act as defined by the state’s whistleblower act. One could more likely chalk it up to “bad taste,” said Michael A. Olivas, a professor of law at the University of Houston and former counsel for the American Association of University Professors. And as an at-will employer, the college does not have to state a reason for firing Veldhuis, even mid-semester. But legally, it cannot fire him for any number of "protected" reasons, such as race or disability status -- or being a legitimate whistleblower.
In any case, Olivas said, colleges typically wait until the end of the semester or contract to terminate part-time instructors who do not pose an immediate threat to students – not fire them in the middle of the week, so far into the semester. To do so ultimately hurts students, he said. Additionally, the college must finish out its contract with Veldhuis -- meaning that it likely must pay him through the duration of his contract, even if he is not teaching.
Adriana Marie Ellico, who is enrolled in one of Veldhuis's courses this semester, said in a Facebook message that she and her peers were disappointed by Veldhuis's termination. “Many of the students in class looked forward to going to class because he made the topic so interesting! He actually was a professor that cared about his class and students!"
As a matter of policy, not law, AAUP says Chaffey College owes Veldhuis some due process. According to AAUP guidelines for part-time faculty members, “In a case of dismissal before the end of the period of appointment, the administration will set forth cause for the action, and the faculty member will have the right to a hearing before a faculty committee.”
Veldhuis has the support of the Chaffey College Faculty Association, which has referred his case to the California Teachers Association for consideration for legal representation. Both associations are affiliated with the National Education Association.
In an email, Denise M. Johnson, adjunct professor of art history at Chaffey and part-time faculty representative for the union, said that part-time community college instructors have never had the right to due process under California law. But Johnson agreed with Olivas that college administrators usually allow part-time faculty members they plan not to rehire to finish out the semester and simply not rehire them, stating that their “needs have changed.”
She continued: “The decision to terminate a part-time instructor mid-semester is somewhat unusual at Chaffey. The difference here is that the faculty member appears interested in pursuing legal channels. In my experience as a part-time representative [for the union], most part-timers who have been dismissed are so dejected and fraught with financial worries that they do not consider legal recourse an option. Instead, they immediately focus their efforts on finding another part-time position, knowing well that their next employer may terminate them for no reason, at the end of any day.”
Maria Maisto, president of the New Faculty Majority, a national adjunct advocacy group, said Veldhuis’s case was only one of many like it across academe.
“Considering that only about 22 percent of adjuncts are unionized and that unionization is often (though definitely not always) the best way to get due process, I think it's very safe to say that the vast majority have few to no due process rights,” she said via email.
And adjuncts pursuing legal action against their former employers venture into uncharted territory, she said. “Very few [adjuncts] have brought and won [Equal Employment Opportunity Commission] discrimination complaints, which are often their only avenue of redress.”
But Veldhuis said he believes both the law and public opinion are on his side. He’s done nothing wrong, he said, and needs his job to survive.
“This is not me spilling coffee on myself and suing McDonald’s," he said. "My gut feeling is that I deserve to work there. I’ve done nothing but make their school better.”