Promoting the Converted

An associate professor at UNC-Wilmington, denied promotion, sues his university for alleged bias against his Christian conservative views.
April 12, 2007

The complaint is familiar: A professor is denied tenure or passed over for a promotion because of his or her right-leaning politics. The professor goes public, often to outlets such as Depending on one's views -- because these situations tend to be based chiefly on conflicting verbal accounts -- the accusations are either part of a larger liberal bias in academe or represent trumped-up charges by unqualified or overly outspoken faculty members.

A lawsuit filed last month features all this and more -- but colorful details, as well as plenty of documentation, add weight to an otherwise routine accusation. Take a department chair's alleged comment that her "image of a perfect job candidate is a lesbian with spiked hair and a dog collar." Or the professor's shock tactics on, where a recent political column, musing on a university's alleged tolerance for terrorists versus homophobes, was titled "How to bomb a gay bath house."

Mike Adams, an associate professor of criminal justice at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, filed a complaint with the U.S. District Court in North Carolina on March 31, alleging an entire series of events -- including a charge that he tear-gassed a colleague's office, an accusation later dropped -- that culminated in a denied request for a full professorship in September 2006. Adams argues that the university and his colleagues involved in the promotion decision violated his rights under the First and 14th Amendments, as well as Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Adams's accusations are interesting because of his self-described conversion from an atheist Democrat to a devout Christian Republican, and the clear record of positive peer evaluations he received before and even after his switch in political ideology and religious beliefs. While most of his colleagues in the Department of Sociology and Criminal Justice, and none who were on the tenure committee, would comment on the outcome, Adams's complaint provides copies of e-mails and other documents that -- lacking competing accounts -- would seem to support his allegations.

A key question is whether the same standard for promotion was applied equally to Adams as to other faculty members -- or whether there are agreed-upon standards at all. Full professors, the faculty handbook says, should have exhibited "distinguished accomplishment in teaching, a tangible record of research or artistic achievement, and a significant record of service. An individual with the rank of professor should have a reputation as an excellent teacher and be recognized as a scholar within her/his professional field." The handbook outlines procedures for promoting faculty members, but specific criteria are left up to departments.

Adams said there were no official criteria for promotion but that he had asked colleagues and the chair multiple times over the years about what it would take to be promoted. "They were very honest. What they would do is lay down the number 10," for 10 published peer-reviewed articles, "and they would refer to it as being safe for promotion to full professor, but they would never say it's automatic. We never had the magic number approach."

He added: "I think there have been times when we have lowered the standards sometimes for feminists. My point is we have dipped down below that 10 before, but I have never seen a case where we have gone up above it, especially for a person with teaching awards. No, it is not fair, and it does not make sense at all to me, and it is just without precedent." Adams published his 11th article last year.

Meanwhile, the university unequivocally denies any charges of discrimination or violation of First Amendment rights. "While the university has not yet been served with the lawsuit, we are prepared fully to defend ourselves," said a statement. "It's not unusual for a person not to be promoted to full professor their first time or even their second time through," said Cecil Willis, a former chair of the department and the assistant vice chancellor for academic affairs.

Beyond the number of publications, promotion deliberations, like yearly evaluations, focus on teaching, advising, research and service. Copies of Adams's evaluations from the period before his full political "conversion" demonstrate consistently above-average ratings of "good" to "outstanding" in all categories. This continues at least through 2001. The complaint states that from 2004 on, evaluations included criticisms of Adams's political activities, such as the column, alleging that they were beginning to interfere with his work.

The most objective measure available is from his own promotion application, which cites his peer rating over the past few years. In 2003, his rating of 7.3 (out of 10) was well above the department average of 6.7. After that year, his rating dipped below the average, remaining at 6.0 through 2005. Whether that's because his colleagues' political beliefs began to color their evaluations or whether the quality of his work actually declined is a key point of contention.

Adams says his research was never affected, and points to his work as an advocate for First Amendment rights, especially in print, as valuable contributions to the community. Willis, though, noted that it's not uncommon for the pace of work to fluctuate over a professor's career. "That's not unheard of for a person's work to change over time," he said. "If you look at the academic career of anyone, we have our ebbs and flows."

For Adams, the discrimination he says he has endured began once he stopped being the well-liked liberal atheist he was when the department originally hired him. He cites a 1996 trip to an Ecuadorean prison, where he met "the happiest people I've ever met in my life," all religious Catholics, as a turning point in his spiritual life, which by then was in a 13-year lapse of agnosticism to atheism. Several years later, he met a notorious Texas death-row inmate, John Penry, who was eventually executed despite his mental retardation. Adams began reading the Bible and had become a bona-fide conservative Christian by 2000.

But Adams's troubles began before he ever started publishing his controversial column. Soon after the attacks of September 11, 2001, he responded harshly to a student's mass mailing criticizing American foreign policy, forwarding it to a few others in the process. The result, the suit alleges, was a long process in which Adams was accused of abuse and libel, culminating in an inspection of his personal e-mail account. A later accusation that he'd sprayed a colleague's office with tear gas was eventually dismissed -- almost five years later.

Like other conservatives who have battled colleagues on ideological territory, Adams believes the "retaliation" he's suffered is part of a larger pattern. In an article in -- where else? --, he recounted specific examples in faculty encounters that he said comprise a pattern of discrimination against Christians and conservatives. He also called the lawsuit "just and meritorious" in a recent column.

The suit is being filed by the Alliance Defense Fund, a Christian legal group. David French, the senior legal counsel, said he believes they have a strong case. "Imagine instead of a religious conservative, you have a secular liberal professor with a column that was very outspoken about the issues of the day ... subjected to investigations, warned about his writings," he said. "In the situation of a Ward Churchill, you have a guy making comments that I think by almost any objective measure would be far more inflammatory over anything Mike Adams ever said ... and the guy just glided to department chair in a major state university."

The suit's legal arguments, especially under Title VII, will hinge on whether Adams was treated differently because of his beliefs. "What we have is, before he became a Christian and a conservative, this is a guy … who was walking the yellow brick road to success," French added. "After he becomes a Christian and a conservative, the world changes for him."


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