The Price of Good Intentions

A faculty member tries to organize a fund for adjuncts with health-care costs, and ends up out of a job.
July 9, 2007

Becky Lee Meadows was responsible last semester for supervising the work of 16 adjunct instructors at Ivy Tech Community College's campus in Madison, Ind. When two of them -- working without any health insurance from the college -- had health emergencies, Meadows got to thinking about what could be done to help out.

She came up with the idea of raising money to create a fund, to be turned over to the college, that would be used to help adjuncts facing unexpected health costs. A country music singer when she's not an academic, Meadows thought she would get things started by holding a benefit concert. (She records under the name FOXX.)

Not only has the college not created the fund and pressured her to call off the concert, but Meadows is now out of a job, and she believes it is because of anger over her efforts on behalf of adjuncts. A committee of the American Philosophical Association and the Indiana conference of the American Association of University Professors, having reviewed documents in the case, agree -- and are saying that the Meadows case raises troubling questions about academic freedom and shows the vulnerability of those without tenure.

A college spokesman said that he didn't know that Meadows was no longer working at the college, and didn't have any information he could discuss.

Meadows had worked as an assistant professor and chair of liberal arts at Ivy Tech since 2005. She was full time, receiving health benefits, but as is the norm at the campus, she worked on annual contracts, not on a tenure track. Meadows taught philosophy, English and general humanities classes while getting involved in the Faculty Senate, serving on a curriculum committee, and helping to organize a conference on the humanities.

When she came up with the idea of holding the concert, she told Ivy Tech officials about it because she wanted to be sure they would take the money raised and hold on to it for adjuncts. Meadows said she was eventually told that the college didn't object to the concert idea, provided that the college was in no way linked to the effort. That was fine with Meadows, who planned to have the company that manages her concerts make the arrangements and to hold the event off campus.

A date was set and tickets were printed. Then Meadows received e-mail messages from college administrators complaining about the tickets, which identified the name "College Relief Fund." Ivy Tech officials complained that the word "college" violated the pledge by Meadows not to link Ivy Tech to the concert -- so she blacked out the word "college," leaving the tickets labeled only as "Relief Fund." But more e-mail messages arrived, including one telling her to "cease and desist" and in a meeting with administrators, Meadows said that the she was told by administrators that the concert had become "a PR nightmare" by implying that Ivy Tech doesn't treat its adjuncts well.

After more meetings, and fearing that she was unfairly being labeled a troublemaker, Meadows agreed to call off the concert. Within a few weeks, despite earlier receiving good indications about her future, Meadows received a certified letter from the college saying that her contract would not be renewed. Under her contract, the college did not have to specify a reason for non-renewal, and it didn't.

Martin Benjamin, professor emeritus of philosophy at Michigan State University and chair of the American Philosophical Association's Committee for the Defense of the Professional Rights of Philosophers, said he was intrigued by the case as soon as Meadows told him about it. So he requested copies of all the documents and e-mail exchanges. After reviewing them, he wrote to the Ivy Tech chancellor this week to ask for reasons why Meadows is no longer employed.

"It's a prima facie case that her rights may have been violated," Benjamin said. He said he was waiting for the Ivy Tech response, and that he couldn't prove a link between the concert and the non-renewal, but that the timing raised questions. "It looked like she'd been doing an excellent job, had the esteem of her colleagues, good teaching evaluations, and it was very surprising that she would not be given a contract," he said. "It seems like everything they asked her to do, she did."

Richard Schneirov, a professor of history at Indiana State University and president of the Indiana AAUP, has also been looking into the case and talking to faculty members who, because of what happened to Meadows, do not want to speak out. Based on the interviews he had conducted and the documents he reviewed, "there is no doubt" that Meadows lost her position because she tried to raise money to help adjuncts, he said.

"People are very concerned and outraged," Schneirov said. "It's made people extremely fearful of exercising any sort of independent judgment. There is no job security."

As for Meadows, she said she's frustrated and angry. She asked for a letter of recommendation and she said the college provided a letter that only confirmed her dates of employment and job titles.

"This all infuriates me," she said. "It's a slap in the face to academic freedom. Any time you have faculty members who are scared to death and afraid to say anything, there is no academic freedom on that campus, and then you have a lesser form of education."

Meadows and her husband own a home in Kentucky, 25 miles away from the Ivy Tech campus where she worked. Because of the home and her husband's job, Meadows said she couldn't do a national job search, and will look for adjunct work in the area. She was informed that her contract wouldn't be renewed right after her husband's "open enrollment" period to add to his insurance coverage. Since they missed that chance, Meadows is now a member of the group she started off trying to help: adjuncts without health insurance.


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