Adjuncts Under Fire?

Fresno State announces that instructor who tweeted “Trump must hang” won’t be returning to campus. He is among several non-tenure-track faculty members to lose their jobs over social media posts.

August 7, 2017
 
Lars Maischak

Lars Maischak, a history lecturer at California State University, Fresno, has admitted that posting a controversial tweet in February -- declaring “Trump must hang” -- wasn't the best idea. But the repercussions he faces, including an announcement Friday that he won't be teaching on the campus in the fall, are receiving scrutiny as well. The debate is about academic freedom and also about whether adjuncts are losing jobs for their statements in ways that wouldn't happen to those on the tenure track.

“To save American democracy, Trump must hang. The sooner and the higher, the better. #TheResistance #DeathToFascism,” Maischak tweeted. The tweet garnered little attention until the right-wing news site Breitbart ran a story on the tweets in April.

Maischak deleted his Twitter account and apologized publicly, saying that he wasn’t intending to incite violence. A review was initiated at Fresno to “ensure that it is clear that the statements made by him were as a private citizen, not as a representative of Fresno State,” according to a release from the institution at the time.

“My statements each represent the end point of a dark train of thought triggered by my despair over the actions of the present U.S. government,” he said in an apology given to The Fresno Bee. “It felt cathartic at the time to write them down. With 28 followers on Twitter at the time, I never expected them to be read by anyone but a close circle of acquaintances who would know to place them in their context.”

“To treat Twitter as of no more consequence than a journal was a poor decision.”

But the relationship between Maischak, who had been a lecturer at Fresno since 2006, and the university would continue to deteriorate -- his classes were canceled for two days, then the institution and Maischak agreed upon him taking a leave of absence for the rest of the spring semester. On Friday, the university announced that he won't be teaching in the fall and instead has been assigned to work on designing online courses until the end of his contract, in December.

“I understand that Dr. Maischak alleges that his nonrenewal is indeed ‘based significantly on considerations that violate academic freedom.’ It would appear to me that this allegation has merit,” Hank Reichman, a professor emeritus of history at California State University, East Bay, and chair of the American Association of University Professors’ Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure, said in an email.

“Maischak's tweet may have been ill considered -- and he has apologized for it -- but he has not been charged with violating any law and he tweeted as a private citizen, not in his faculty capacity. The right of faculty members to speak or write as citizens, free from institutional censorship or discipline, has long been recognized as a core principle of academic freedom.”

Additionally, Reichman said, Maischak hasn’t been charged with a crime for his tweets, making his academic freedom case stronger.

Free Speech -- Except for Adjuncts?

Would Maischak face the same level of scrutiny by the university -- and the same removal from his teaching position -- if he was tenured? Do adjunct faculty members have shakier academic freedom safeguards than their peers?

“It’s really easy to fire an adjunct,” said John K. Wilson, an independent scholar of academic freedom and co-editor of the American Association of University Professors’ “Academe” blog. “That makes them more vulnerable to attacks on their academic freedom.”

An incoming adjunct professor at Montclair State University was stripped of his course load for the fall semester last month, after he posted a tweet saying he wished someone “would just shoot [Trump] outright.”

The professor, Kevin Allred, had previously lost teaching work at Rutgers University in connection with his tweets, which he has said aren’t supposed to be taken literally.

"How is my one tweet using a hyperbolic expression worse than what 'the president' himself is doing day after day?" he wrote in other tweets.

Essex County College recently suspended Lisa Durden, an adjunct professor, after she debated Fox commentator Tucker Carlson on the Black Lives Matter movement on his evening show, where she has made frequent appearances. The college didn’t publicly specify that the Fox appearance was the reason, but Durden said college officials told her of a complaint made after her appearance.

“They wanted to send a message,” Durden said at the time. “‘See what happened to Lisa Durden? You know, it could happen to me.’ Free speech doesn’t matter if you’re a professor -- make people mad and you’re in trouble.”

Those disciplinary actions come at a time when social media use and academic freedom have become a flash point in firings and suspensions.

"Faculty on term appointments are more vulnerable than those with tenure," Reichman said, speaking generally rather than about any specific cases.

Fresno declined to comment further than the statements that have already been released. Maischak forwarded a request for comment to his legal and labor representatives, who did not respond by press time.

Though Maischak will still be employed through the end of his contract, Wilson said he was concerned about how much due process there was in Fresno’s decision.

“That reflects the power of the union, but even in a case like that, being taken out of the classroom for extramural utterance is a violation of academic freedom, even if you’re still being paid, even if you’re doing other work,” Wilson said.

“There are several of these cases of these people expressing violent, negative wishes toward Donald Trump. But I think it’s important to remember this is not a case of a death threat, this is not somebody making some kind of serious act of violence,” he said. “There’s no reason that some offensive tweet means he’s an incompetent teacher of his class. There doesn’t seem to be any indication of why, beyond public opinion, the university is doing this.”

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