Novelist Quits Teaching Job Over Loyalty Oath

Arizona is surprised to find out it still requires professors to sign a statement that was common in McCarthy era. And a community college loses an adjunct who was its star professor.

September 30, 2015
James Sallis

James Sallis, a novelist who may be the most famous faculty member at Phoenix College, has for many years taught as an adjunct at the community college.

But he told Phoenix reporters Tuesday that he's quitting -- rather than sign a state loyalty oath the college has not required all adjuncts in the past to sign, even though it is college policy to do do. (This paragraph, and one two paragraphs down, have been updated based on new information from the college.)

"I never imagined that things like this were still around. It horrified me," Sallis told 12News in Phoenix. He said he had taught at the college for 14 years without signing the oath.

Officials at the college told the station that it had no choice under state law but to require Sallis to sign. The officials said that, in preparation for an accreditation review, the college reached out to 800 adjunct instructors -- Sallis among them -- and found that some of them had never signed the loyalty oath, and that they have been told they must do so to keep their jobs.

Sallis may be better able to afford to take a principled stand against loyalty oaths than his fellow adjuncts are. He is the author of 15 novels as well as collections of poems and essays. He is best known for his novel Drive, which he helped turn into a film in which Ryan Gosling starred.

Arizona does in fact have a loyalty oath requirement for all employees of the state or other government units. In the oath, people must pledge to "support the Constitution of the United States and the Constitution and laws of the State of Arizona; That I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same, and defend them against all enemies, foreign and domestic." Opponents of loyalty oaths tend to say that they do in fact support the constitution, but that requiring such support is a violation of their free speech rights, especially given that such oaths were a tool of McCarthy-era politicians to harass those with whom they disagreed.

Students are expressing outrage over the enforcement of the loyalty oath rule, and are saying that they signed up for a course with Sallis because he would be the instructor. E. J. Montini, a columnist for The Arizona Republic, quoted from a student letter to the college. “He provided an opportunity for the kind of world-class instruction that is typically only accessible to those who attend prestigious and expensive M.F.A. programs.”

Of forcing faculty members to sign the oath, Montini quips in his column that "should a time come when Arizona is under assault by enemies foreign or domestic I’d guess that our first defensive measure would not be to call up the English department at Phoenix College."

But he goes on to say that the issue is a serious one. "Signing an oath under such circumstances isn’t an expression of loyalty, however. It’s blackmail."

While many think of loyalty oaths as long gone, they remain on the books and are sometimes enforced in some states, including in public higher education.

In 2008, two California State University instructors lost their jobs for refusing to sign a loyalty oath. Eventually a compromise was reached that allowed one of the instructors to regain her job by agreeing to sign the oath but to add a statement that she objected to being forced to sign, and that, as a Quaker, she did not pledge to take up arms or commit any violent act on behalf of the United States or California.

After that dispute, the American Association of University Professors passed a resolution affirming the group's "belief that refusal to sign a loyalty oath does not justify the refusal to appoint a faculty member or the termination of faculty appointments."

Follow me on Twitter @ScottJaschik.


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