Matt Williams played a key role in publicizing a controversial DNA-testing policy for new employees at the University of Akron, setting the stage for the policy's reversal. But he won't benefit.
While a department hired him to teach a class starting next week as an adjunct, Akron decided that the form of his protest last year -- quitting in the middle of the semester -- bars him from further employment. So the university revoked the offer of the adjunct slot. The university says that since he left his courses once, he can't be relied upon.
Leaders of the New Faculty Majority, a new national group for those off the tenure track, think that there is more at play than just punishment for his protest last year -- an action that they defend as appropriate. They note that, once the policy was rescinded, Williams was rehired to teach a course and did so successfully. The decision to bar him from future teaching followed a series of letters he sent to trustees and other university leaders asking for meetings to discuss the way adjuncts are treated. And that's why they think his hiring to teach another course was revoked.
Maria Maisto, president of the New Faculty Majority, praised Williams for "his courage, his unwavering commitment to and resourcefulness in uncovering the truth about the treatment of adjunct and contingent faculty, and for his determined effort to engage the administration of the University of Akron in dialogue." She said she believes his lost course is part of a pattern in higher education in which jobs are taken from adjuncts who "put their livelihoods at risk for advocating for equal treatment of all faculty members."
Williams took on Akron last year over a policy that required new employees not only to submit to a criminal background check, but to be willing to offer a DNA sample upon demand. While the university never asked anyone for DNA, the stipulation that it could do so struck many faculty members -- adjuncts and tenure-track alike -- as degrading and unnecessary.
While there had been faculty discussions about the issue, the protests took off after Williams went public with his criticisms by quitting the courses he was teaching  -- mid-semester. At the time, he said it was important for someone to take a stand: "It's not enough that the university doesn't pay us a living wage, or provide us with health insurance, but now they want to sacrifice the sanctity of our bodies. No."
Amid growing publicity over the issue after Williams quit, the university rescinded the policy. So at the beginning of 2010, when approached about teaching, Williams accepted and he taught a course on Web design, without any controversy, and he was asked to teach another course, on using Google Analytics, that was supposed to start next week. Back as an adjunct, Williams also picked up his activism on behalf of his colleagues, and started a campaign of writing to trustees and others to ask for meetings to talk about working conditions for instructors.
Then he was called in last week and told that the department that wanted to hire him had been told that it could not do so because he had breached his contract when he quit in protest last year. He said that he believes the university's decision to back down on the DNA policy "vindicated my protest" and that he doesn't see why a principled action should be held against him. "If you are on the wrong side of an issue, that's one thing, but I was on the right side and the university implicitly acknowledged that by rescinding the rule."
Given that he was hired back -- and barred from teaching again only after he started sending letters to trustees -- he said that "I don't know how any reasonable third party could come to any other conclusion than that the university is taking action against me because of my vocal stance in defense of adjunct and contingent faculty, including the DNA policy." He said that his situation is just "further indication of the jeopardy we deal with" without job security.
Barbara O'Malley, a spokeswoman for the university, said that the decision to bar him from further teaching has nothing to do with his work on behalf of adjuncts or the DNA protests. What he did last year was that he "basically walked out on his classes," in violation of his contract, she said. "We had to scramble to get his classes covered, and we felt horrible about that because we are committed to providing a high quality, supportive environment for our students."
O'Malley acknowledged that Williams taught one course without incident since the dispute that led him to quit. But she said that the university's administration wasn't aware that a department had hired him. "When it came to our attention that they hired him, we said this is not the kind of instructor we want teaching anybody because he hasn't shown us he is respectful to our students."
She said that the decision had nothing to do with his recent letters to trustees. "Matt Williams walked out on his class. He had been entrusted by the University of Akron to teach. That's not professional." She added that she objected to the way last year's dispute has been described. "We never had a DNA policy," she said. "We had a criminal background check policy and a very small part of that policy was a DNA clause."