Report: Community College Of Aurora Violated Professor’s Academic Freedom
Concluding a months-long investigation into the firing of a part-time professor, the American Association of University Professors accuses Community College of Aurora of denying due process rights to its part-time instructors, as well as violating their academic freedom. The allegations center around Nathanial Bork, a former philosophy professor who was fired from CCA in fall 2016 after he voiced concerns about curriculum changes at the school.
Last year, the school introduced “gatekeeper strategies,” targeting transfer courses with high failure rates. When Bork learned that his course was to be restructured following these new strategies, he worried his course would be too easy -- and that his students would be blindsided once they transferred to a four-year college. Bork wrote a letter to the Higher Learning Commission, which is CCA’s accreditor, to express those concerns.
Days after sending that letter, he says he was subject to a surprise performance evaluation. And just days after that, he was fired over the phone, with no option to appeal the decision. Bork had been teaching at CCA for six years.
In their final report on Bork’s firing, the American Association of University Professors came down squarely on his side. The group found Bork to be a parable about tenuous part-time employment at colleges. With a teaching force that’s comprised of roughly 80 percent part-time or adjunct professors, AAUP found CCA’s protections for those part-timers to be severely lacking.
“Mr. Bork’s case highlights the very clear threat that a lack of due process poses for the exercise of academic freedom and underscores the general unacceptability of such policies, at CCA and elsewhere,” the report says. “Under these conditions, the academic freedom of adjunct faculty members is not universally guaranteed as a matter of institutional policy but selectively bestowed as a function of administrative benevolence. That is to say, it does not exist.”
While AAUP’s investigators were not tasked with weighing in on the gatekeeper strategies, they did notice problems in how they were implemented. Despite CCA’s claims that faculty members had a seat at the table, Nicholas Fleisher -- who chaired the investigating committee -- says interviews with faculty members didn’t support those claims.
“What we were told was there were opportunities for faculty to provide input on the design of this curriculum,” he says. “But many of the people we spoke to said that those meetings were in large part presentations from the administration on how it was going to go.”
When it came to the issue of academic freedom, AAUP’s team found it worrisome that administrators were controlling Bork’s curriculum in the first place. What’s more, CCA faculty members interviewed by AAUP told them that it was the administration’s way or the highway. “Several current and former CCA faculty members indicated to the investigating committee that the administration told them, during summer 2016, that if they were unwilling to implement the new Gateway to Success curriculum, they should seek employment elsewhere,” the report says.
The report also slams the performance evaluation Bork was given that lead to his firing, citing his six years of consistently strong performance reviews. It argues that his mid-semester termination may have been a detriment to his students. A student who spoke to the investigating committee said Bork’s replacement missed class once “out of forgetfulness.”
Bork, for his part, is happy to see AAUP find in his favor. “I feel extremely vindicated,” he says. “I feel like the truth has been put forward.”
He hopes that CCA will use the report as a roadmap to improve their institutional policies. However, CCA sees the report a little differently. In a written statement, CCA president Betsy Oudenhoven stood by gatekeeper strategies, as well as the decision to fire Bork.
“In the case of the instructor whose complaint led to the report, the department chair and achievement coach who observed the instructor discovered general instructional problems as well as difficulties in the implementation of the new curriculum they characterized as severe,” she says.
The next steps for AAUP include offering recommendations to CCA on how to remedy the problems. AAUP will also be voting on whether or not to censure CCA. While the censure amounts to little more than putting the school on notice, Fleisher says schools on AAUP’s censure list also serve as cautionary tales.
“The working conditions for adjunct faculty at CCA and lots and lots of other places around the country are really inadequate and unacceptable, and what happened in this case is one of the kinds of unacceptable things that can happen when institutional policies are not what they should be,” he says.