Crosses, Threats and an Adjunct

May 29, 2012

In the fall, Sissy Bradford took a public stand -- unpopular with many in San Antonio -- about separation of church and state. She was briefly in the news and her view prevailed. Since then, she has received e-mail threats because of her stance. This month, she told the story of those threats to the alt-weekly in San Antonio, which ran an article about them. And the day the article came out, Texas A&M University at San Antonio told her that she would not be teaching in the fall, despite her having previously been assigned four courses.

Bradford teaches criminology at the university;she has strong student evaluations (which she shared with Inside Higher Ed) and she has been honored for her teaching. She became a public figure when she complained about crosses that had been installed on a tower that was part of the entrance to the campus. The crosses were put there by a developer, not the university, but Bradford maintained that they were inappropriate for the entrance to a public university campus. Americans United for Separation of Church and State backed her -- and after that organization sent a series of letters to San Antonio and university officials, the developer removed the crosses. That was in November.

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As the debate played out over church-state issues, Bradford started to receive threatening e-mails. One of the e-mails reflects the tone. It started with: "As a professor, do you have the right to live?" And it described Bradford ending up in a coffin, concluding "After that you will reign with your father Satan." That e-mail message and a series of others were turned over to the university police department, Bradford said.

Bradford believes that the university did not take the threats seriously. She shared her frustrations with The Current, a San Antonio publication, which ran an article in which she discussed the threats, as did some students who backed her. The university police department confirmed for The Current that an investigation into the threats had been opened, and closed, and declined to discuss details.

The day the article appeared, Bradford received an e-mail from William S. Bush, interim head of the School of Arts and Sciences at Texas A&M-San Antonio, that said in its entirety: "I'm writing to inform you that the School of Arts and Sciences will not be able to offer you any classes in the fall semester. If you wish to discuss this matter further, please submit a written request to Dr. Brent Snow, provost and VP for academic affairs. Please note that he will be traveling abroad until Tuesday, May 29."

Adjuncts are fully aware that they lack job security. But Bradford notes that she had previously been assigned four courses for the fall (she provided Inside Higher Ed with e-mails from administrators about the course assignments, and other e-mails from the university confirming that she had turned in book assignments for the classes). Further, she noted that the university has been regularly advertising for adjuncts to teach criminology -- the subject area she teaches.

"It is quite obvious I wasn't fired for any reason related to my ability to teach," Bradford said.

A spokeswoman for Texas A&M-San Antonio said that Bush was not aware of the article in The Current when he decided who would receive classes for the fall, and that Bradford was among 20 adjuncts who were not offered employment for the fall. The spokeswoman did not indicate why Bradford would have received class assignments and then have them removed. But she said that "adjunct faculty members are all appointed  on a semester-by-semester basis as needed by the university. This is a common practice. There is no expectation of continued employment."

Eric Lane, president of the San Antonio chapter of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said that the university had an obligation to protect Bradford from those threatening her, and to show that it protects those who take public positions. "If on a university campus you cannot have discussion and debate over an issue like this where there are varying sides, it creates a threatening environment," he said.

Bradford said that the lost courses will have a huge impact on her life. "That was my livelihood and my health insurance," she said.

She said she is particularly bothered that this outcome resulted from a dispute that started with her voicing concern about an American principle. "The state of academic freedom is in peril if you can't speak up for the Constitution," she said.

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