Professor Durden’s Firing Highlights Adjuncts’ Shaky Footing - Higher Education
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Professor Durden’s Firing Highlights Adjuncts’ Shaky Footing

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by Catherine Morris

After a New-York based Black Lives Matter chapter held a “blacks-only” Memorial Day party, Fox News host Tucker Carlson and political commentator Lisa Durden got into a sparring match during a “Tucker Carlson Live” show.

“You White people are angry because you couldn’t use your White privilege card to get invited to the Black Lives Matter’s all-Black Memorial Day Celebration,” Durden said.

Lisa Durden

Carlson said that the celebration promoted segregation, and called Durden and BLM “hostile, separatist and crazy.”

The exchange was a fiery one, but Durden never thought that it would have any impact on her employment as an adjunct professor at Essex County College, an open-access, two-year community college headquartered in Newark, New Jersey.

“I had no concept that when I came to school after the appearance that I would be suspended and subsequently fired,” Durden told Diverse a phone interview on Monday.

Yet when Durden arrived on ECC’s campus to teach two days later, she said that she was intercepted by an administrator who escorted her to her classroom and instructed her to inform her students that she would not be holding class that day. She was then immediately taken to the HR office, where she was handed a suspension notice. Two weeks later, she was fired.

“They never gave me any reason in the paperwork when they decided to fire me,” Durden said. “From what I understand the president has made statements about why he’s not inviting me back, but I’ve not seen any of that.”

In a lengthy statement posted on ECC’s website, president Dr. Anthony E. Munroe acknowledged that while Durden did not purport to represent the views and beliefs of the college during her appearance on “Tucker Carlson Live,” the exchange reflected negatively on the college. Out of concern for “potential impact” on students, Durden was suspended and ultimately terminated, according to Munroe.

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“The College was immediately inundated with feedback from students, faculty and prospective students and their families expressing frustration, concern and even fear that the views expressed by a College employee (with influence over students) would negatively impact their experience on campus,” Munroe wrote.

“The College affirms its right to select employees who represent the institution appropriately and are aligned with our mission,” Munroe continued.

Durden, however, said that she has seen little evidence of this alleged backlash other than on social media. Response to her firing has been mixed, she said. While she acknowledged that she has many detractors, she also has numerous, vocal supporters.

Her supporters launched a change.org petition around the #ReinstateProfessorLisaDurden social media campaign that has since racked up more than 1,700 signatures.

Social media backlash comes with the territory of being a media personality, Durden said.

“If you walk the red carpet for an MTV award, there’s going to be backlash — people saying, ‘I hate the dress, I love the dress,’” Durden said. “You’re going to get haters and lovers.”

When the topic is race and social justice issues, the response is even more intense, Durden added.

“When you’re talking about race, you’re going to get more haters, because nobody wants to talk about race,” Durden said. “You get a few more haters talking about race than you would talking about shoes on the red carpet.”

The case raises serious questions about the nature of free speech on college campuses.

“Munroe’s statement acknowledges that Durden was not speaking for the college, and in fact never claimed to do so,” Ari Z. Cohn, director of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, wrote in an email. “Which means that the college is punishing Durden for speech she made as a private citizen.”

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Durden never claimed to be speaking in her role as a professor of ECC during her exchange with Carlson. Instead, she was acting in her capacity as an established media personality and political commentator.

Even though adjuncts are not afforded the same protections that their tenured peers enjoy, all employees of public universities are protected under the First Amendment. Provided that their speech does not threaten or incite harm to anyone, public employees have the right to speak their minds, even if the content of that speech is deemed offensive by some.

Adjunct faculty, however, are in a particularly tenuous position related to free speech. They often work short-term contracts that are renewed on a semester or annual basis. Typically, adjuncts receive limited pay and few benefits for their labor. Unlike tenured faculty, adjuncts are also not afforded the same institutional due process rights and can be fired at will.

While some efforts have been made to unionize adjunct faculty at a number of colleges and universities across the country, they are still a vulnerable population. Universities can easily let adjuncts go simply by not renewing their contracts.

“The relative ease with which colleges and universities can get rid of a controversial adjunct faculty member bodes very poorly for the free speech and academic freedom rights of adjuncts,” Cohn said.

Durden’s current situation is indicative of the “Walmartization” of college campuses, according to Dr. Jessica Wager, assistant professor of the humanities at ECC. “You have a small elite body of administrators who make $200,000 or more, and then you have support staff or adjunct professors who in some cases are making barely minimum wage when you add up all the hours it takes to prepare lessons, teach and mentor students,” she said.

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Wager said that she met Durden 15 years ago while they were both working in New York media. Over the years, Durden held workshops and panels for students at ECC prior to her recent appointment as an adjunct, according to Wager. “She was a great resource for our students in terms of getting them internships and many of those led to full-time gigs,” Wager said.

As an adjunct faculty member, Durden was no less effective, according to Wager. “Her students really thought she was effective and valued her teaching,” she said.

Durden said that she plans to fight to be reinstated at ECC, and is now juggling numerous invitations to appear on panels, television, and even a potential reality TV show that have come about in the wake of ECC’s public decision to terminate her. She has also received a few invitations to be an adjunct professor elsewhere.

“I still want to be reinstated at ECC, because I want more than one adjunct position, like many other adjuncts do,” Durden said. “I like to teach.”

She is considering taking legal action against the college. Her lawyer, Leslie Farber, said that an institution like ECC cannot prevent individuals like Durden from exercising their right to free speech.

“Employment at-will ordinarily means you could be terminated for any reason, except employers can’t violate discrimination laws and constitutional protections,” Farber said. “If they want to fire somebody because they don’t like the color shoes they’re wearing, they probably can do that, but this is clearly in response to her appearance on a TV show talking about political issues.”

“The overarching story is not about Lisa Durden,” Durden said. “It’s about how adjuncts are treated.”

Staff writer Catherine Morris can be reached at cmorris@diverseeducation.com.

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