To Sign, or Not to Sign?

In light of a recent high-profile faculty resignation at Phoenix College, some are asking why other professors asked to sign loyalty oaths don't object.

October 2, 2015
James Sallis

James Sallis, a successful novelist and longtime adjunct instructor of creative writing at Phoenix College, shocked some of his colleagues and students earlier this week when he abruptly announced his resignation. The reason? Sallis refused to sign an oath required of all faculty members swearing his allegiance to the state and country. While the public reaction to Sallis’s decision has been mixed, some of his supporters have been critical of his many colleagues who have signed the oath without issue. And the criticism does bring up an important question: Why in higher education, with its premium on academic freedom, have most faculty members signed these state-required oaths?

One common answer? Loyalty oaths, while irksome to academics, are largely viewed as inconsequential. Others still equate them to a kind of employee “blackmail.”

“I don't think there are many problems because most people see them as meaningless, if perhaps inappropriate, gestures -- although personally I wish they'd just be dropped,” said Henry Reichman, professor emeritus of history at California State University at East Bay and chairman of the American Association of University Professors’ Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure. “But if one considers the various legislative priorities of both public university administrators and their faculty, getting these repealed usually doesn't rank very high.”

Up until Sallis’s resignation, Reichman’s campus was the most recent site of a flare-up over loyalty oaths. In 2008, East Bay terminated Marianne Kearney-Brown, an adjunct instructor of remedial math, for refusing to sign California’s loyalty oath for public employees as-is. The oath says that employees "swear (or affirm)" to "support and defend" the U.S. and California constitutions "against all enemies, foreign and domestic."

Kearney-Brown, a Quaker, didn’t want to sign the document without stating that she pledged to defend the state and country only “nonviolently.” After filing an appeal, she was reinstated -- with the provision that she sign the oath and an accompanying document saying that “signing the oath does not carry with it any obligation or requirement that public employees bear arms or otherwise engage in violence.”

Cut to this year, when Sallis was notified ahead of an accreditation review at Phoenix College that administrators didn’t have a current copy of his signed loyalty oath. Under Arizona law, all state employees must sign a pledge similar to California’s, swearing to defend the U.S. and state constitutions and “bear true faith and allegiance to the same.” The law was challenged and changed in the 1960s to eliminate language regarding membership in the Communist Party. It was rewritten again in 2003.

Sallis took issue with the request to complete his file, saying he’d rather resign than sign. But the college wouldn’t budge.

Michelle Klinger, a spokesperson for Phoenix, said the college sent similar to requests to complete personnel files to 800 other adjuncts this year alone, and no one’s ever complained over the oath and other issues.

Sallis said via email that he thought most colleagues probably signed the oath “without giving it thought -- just a piece of paper.” But the “saddest and most damning things I'm hearing in the deluge of emails and posts since the story broke,” he added, “are communications from those who despised the oath, knew that it was innately wrong, yet had to sign it to get or keep their jobs.”

Sallis referenced a recent piece from E. J. Montini, a columnist at The Arizona Republic, calling the oath a kind of “blackmail.”

“What dismays and disappoints Sallis most is the way state employees, as well as the rest of us, simply give in to this politically imposed demand,” Montini wrote. “The attitude being: it doesn’t matter, just sign it. But aren’t oaths supposed to mean something?”

Hans-Joerg Tiede, a professor of computer science at Illinois Wesleyan University and a member of the AAUP’s academic freedom committee, is the author of a forthcoming book on the history of the organization. AAUP has consistently spoken out against mandatory loyalty oaths as a condition of employment, since in AAUP’s view they have no bearing on the faculty member’s professional fitness.

Tiede said that loyalty oaths originated in the 1930s, and they were especially common during the McCarthy era. There was an extended fight over the oaths in the University of California system in the 1940s, he said, but they survived.

Like Sallis, Tiede guessed that “not too many people object because they don't want to endanger their jobs.” But, he said, if oaths “truly don't mean anything, then why administer them?”

But faculty members working in Arizona said the oaths had no bearing on their work, and eliminating them was of low priority.

Michael Brewer, a librarian and vice chair of the Faculty Senate at the University of Arizona, said he didn’t remember signing a loyalty oath and he didn’t particularly like the idea of them.

But Arizona's in particular “seems like a quaint relic of the past that has no real impact on my professional life (and, thus, doesn’t really warrant much of my attention),” he said via email.

Lynn Nadel, Regents' Professor of Psychology and chair of the Faculty Senate at the University of Arizona, said he doesn’t like loyalty oaths, which he called “pointless and counter to the notion of freedom of expression.”

Nevertheless, Nadel added, the oath is a condition of employment to which he’s paid little attention since “I don't think it effectively changes anything I do or might do.” He said the issue doesn’t ever come up in the Faculty Senate.

Several longtime professors at Arizona State University said they simply didn’t remember signing the loyalty oaths. Sallis himself said he likely signed one at some point years ago, “in a sheaf of papers handed me.”

Sallis added, “All the more reason for each of us to pause, put down our pens, and think. As writer Theodore Sturgeon urged: always ‘Ask the next question.’”

Brewer, at the University of Arizona, said he understood some of the criticism of faculty members who had signed the document. But he simply wasn’t worried about it.

“Were this something that directly impacted the ability of our faculty to do their jobs, I am confident that the faculty leaders and others at the [university] would not hesitate to confront it head-on,” he said. “Because that is not the case, though, and because we have so many other substantial issues to address -- issues that do affect faculty -- those kinds of statements don’t concern me at all.”


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