Adjunct Fired for a Bad Joke

BY HANK REICHMAN

In my October Davis, Markert, Nickerson Lecture at the University of Michigan I argued that “the gravest challenge to academic freedom, one that exacerbates all others, [is] the steady erosion of the tenure system and the concomitant and explosive expansion of contingent, frequently part-time faculty employment,” what some have labeled “adjunctification.”  Part-time faculty members off the tenure-track are especially vulnerable when they are targeted for harassment and abuse for comments made on social media or for speaking out on institutional issues.  Such assaults result not only in quiet non-renewals but far too often in outright dismissals, as was the case, for examples, with Jeffrey Klinzman at Kirkwood Community College in Iowa and Nathaniel Bork at Community College of Aurora in Colorado.

The latest incident comes from Babson College in Massachusetts.  Asheen Phansey, a Babson alum, part-time instructor, and the college’s sustainability coordinator, in what he later described as a “bad attempt at humor,” posted to Facebook an obviously facetious proposal that Supreme Leader of Iran Ali Khamenei “should tweet a list of 52 sites of beloved American cultural heritage that he would bomb.”  Phansey suggested those targets might include Minnesota’s Mall of America and a home of the Kardashian family, among other locations.

Predictably, and sadly, the post became fodder for the Internet right-wing outrage machine.  Turtleboysports.com first reported the story.  The site has been described as “a cultish Worcester, Mass.-based blog of Patriots worship, investigative reporting about Massachusetts miscreants . . . and smiting of Social Justice Warriors, dumb criminals, bad parents and Black Lives Matter supporters.”  It was then picked up by the Boston Herald.  (Turtleboy would complain that “Hack Boston Herald Reporter Shamelessly Steals Story We Broke About Douchebag Babson Professor That Was Sent To Her And Passes It Off As Her Own.”)  The remark was clearly a response to President Trump’s call, later retracted, for the U.S. to bomb 52 Iranian cultural sites if it retaliated for the U.S. assassination of Gen. Qassem Soleimani.

In a Wednesday email to the Herald Phansey wrote:

I regret my bad attempt at humor.  As an American, born and raised, I was trying to juxtapose our ‘cultural sites’ with ancient Iranian churches and mosques.  I am completely opposed to violence and would never advocate it by anyone.  I am sorry that my sloppy humor was read as a threat.  I condemn all acts of violence. I am particularly sorry to cause any harm or alarm for my colleagues at Babson, my beloved alma mater, and the place where I have enjoyed teaching students and serving as its sustainability director.

That was apparently not enough for Babson.  Today the school issued a statement that it had suspended Phansey with pay “pending the completion of our investigation” and that the college “condemns any type of threatening words and/or actions condoning violence and/or hate.”  Hours later, however, Babson sent another statement, writing: “Based on the results of the investigation, the staff member is no longer a Babson College employee.  As we have previously stated, Babson College condemns any type of threatening words and/or actions condoning violence and/or hate.”

So much for due process.  So much for free speech.  So much for academic freedom.

Writing before the dismissal was announced, Adam Steinbaugh, director of the Individual Rights Defense Program at FIRE, told the Daily Beast that the post amounted to “core political speech, protected under any principled understanding of freedom of expression” and that, “while Babson College is a private institution not bound by the First Amendment, it has committed itself to principles of academic freedom and freedom of expression.”

“Babson has betrayed those principles,” Steinbaugh added.

Indeed it has.  According to the college’s website,

The faculty of Babson College has the primary responsibility to develop, sustain, and enhance the intellectual and academic quality of the College.  To ensure this, the College uses a model of shared governance in which its faculty is responsible for all policies relating to the college curriculum content and pedagogical process, intellectual vitality and research, academic standards and admissions policies, as well as the manner in which faculty work.

More specifically, in faculty-administration relations, the site claims,

  • Deliberation precedes decision-making in order to bring together relevant constituencies and information for active discussion and debate;
  • All parties continually strive for transparency in decision-making;
  • All parties communicate openly and appreciate the diversity of individuals in relation to the more broadly-defined needs and interests of the institution; and
  • All parties work to create an environment of trust and goodwill.

Yeah, that clearly happened here.

Moreover, the Faculty Senate, we are told, has as part of its charge to

  • Be the faculty-sanctioned voice to make recommendations in those decisions that affect the faculty or impact the overall mission of the institution or compromises the values or reputation of the College;
  • Promote transparency so that data or reasons behind decisions are clear and well-understood;
  • Promote a climate of academic freedom for the College community (emphases in original)

I certainly hope the Babson Senate will raise its voice to protest this egregious violation of these principles and to demand due process and academic freedom for Asheen Phansey.

Unfortunately, this case is hardly an isolated incident.  The continuing assault on non-tenure-track faculty members, who now constitute the overwhelming majority of our profession, has contributed to the growing recognition that without the protections of tenure, endangered as those protections also are, adjunct faculty lack not only academic freedom but basic civil and employment rights.  Apparently, they can’t even make a bad political joke without losing their job.