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Inside Higher Education
Fired Because He Wouldn't Dumb Down a Course?

AAUP report concludes that a professor at Community College of Aurora was likely fired for refusing to compromise on rigor in his courses as part of a "student success" initiative.

By Colleen Flaherty
March 29, 2017

Students may complain about courses that are too hard, but could fighting to maintain high standards actually get a professor fired? A new report from the American Association of University Professors alleges that Colorado’s Community College of Aurora terminated an adjunct because he refused to lower his expectations for his introductory philosophy class. The report sets the stage for the AAUP to vote on censuring Aurora for alleged violations of academic freedom later this spring, but the college denies such charges. It blames Nathanial Bork’s termination on his own teaching “difficulties.”

“While it is impossible to say with absolute certainty that Bork’s dismissal was an act of retaliation by the [college] administration,” reads the AAUP report, “we can say with certainty that the timeline of events is suggestive, the circumstances of the dismissal are extraordinary and the administration’s stated rationale is unconvincing. Moreover, even if the administration were not engaging in retaliation against Bork, its actions have convinced many faculty members that it was.”

Bork began teaching at Aurora in 2010. Splitting his time between Arapahoe Community College and Aurora, Bork taught a variety of courses over the next six years, from philosophy to comparative religion. He also served as an outspoken proponent for adjuncts, who make up the overwhelming majority of instructors at Aurora.

Then in September, Bork received a call from his department chair and dean at Aurora, who told him that he was done teaching there -- effective immediately. The college eventually blamed the decision on what it called Bork’s “lack of effectiveness in implementing the philosophy curriculum redesign.” But he says he was fired for planning to blow the whistle on a dumbing down of introductory liberal arts “gatekeeper” courses. The college was trying to boost passage rates to demonstrate progress in encouraging student success.

Just days before Bork was terminated, he says, he drafted an email to the state’s Higher Learning Commission, complaining about Aurora’s new Gateway to Success initiative. The goal of the program was to increase pass rates in these gatekeeper courses but, Bork said, in reality, he’d been asked to cut 20 percent of his introductory philosophy course content; require fewer writing assignments, with a new maximum of eight pages per semester; offer small-group activities every other class session; and make works by women and minority thinkers about 30 percent of the course.

Bork said he was told to keep teaching this way until 80 percent of all student demographic groups were passing the course, which in his view violated the spirit of Colorado law on guaranteed transfer courses to a four-year institution.

“Simply put,” he wrote in the draft email, “this class is now much, much easier to get an A in or pass than it was previously. … If the people we’re giving [A-pluses] to in the [guaranteed transfer] courses are only doing the equivalent of high school work at other colleges, I believe that sets up our students for harm later on. Our student success rates will spike through the roof, but we’ll be graduating people who think they’ve received a college education, but in reality have only done high school-level work.”

He asked the commission to investigate some of the college’s inclusive excellence policies and, according to AAUP, attached a letter from a fellow professor at Aurora who said he’d resigned over the changes (that professor could not immediately by reached for comment).

Bork didn’t forward the letter to the commission, he says, but did share it with administrators. Days later, he was observed while teaching with no notice by his department chair and a college “achievement coach.” He eventually learned that both raters -- Bobby Pace, the chair for social sciences, and H. Ray Keith, the coach -- gave him low marks. That was after six years of consistently positive reviews, he says.

“There was no content being presented during the observation period,” reads Pace’s evaluation, and “the students did not appear to be properly instructed in the specific step[s] of the process.”

Bork maintains that the students were frustrated with the new curriculum, not with him. He reached out to the AAUP after his termination, and the national office contacted the college to say that it recommends faculty members be able to defend themselves against specific charges before a faculty committee.

An AAUP investigating committee visited the campus in December to conduct interviews with administrators, faculty members and a student. The committee found that while Bork, an adjunct, was not entitled to any due process under institutional policies, full-time faculty members at Aurora may only be fired for incompetence "after notice and opportunity to improve.” After six years of strong service, the committee said, it seem that Bork deserved such an opportunity.

Investigators also questioned how Bork's observed exercise on how to draft a thesis statement could be so bad that he'd been fired virtually on the spot.

“It bears emphasizing that adjunct instructors constitute, by the administration’s reckoning, at least 80 percent of the [college] faculty,” the committee wrote in the report. “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 [the college] and elsewhere. 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.”

The committee said that several current and former college faculty members anonymously indicated that administrators also had told them “if they were unwilling to implement the new Gateway to Success curriculum, they should seek employment elsewhere.” The committee took these requests for anonymity as evidence of a “climate of fear” on campus -- one inimical to academic freedom.

Pace reportedly told the AAUP investigators that a student in Bork's class conveyed her concerns about the course to him. But the student in question reportedly told the investigating committee that she approached the department to complain about the Gateway to Success curriculum itself, not Bork’s teaching. She reportedly said she enjoyed Bork's class, with the exception of the new curriculum.

In sum, the committee wrote, the Aurora administration’s stated rationale for Bork’s summary dismissal “strains credulity.”

Speaking to greater concerns about part-time faculty members and abuses of academic freedom across academe, the committee said that as the proportion of the faculty members employed in adjunct and other contingent positions grows, “the overall academic freedom of America’s faculty shrinks. The private business model of academic employment, in which managers exercise complete control over the working conditions and appointment status of those they oversee, is already a reality for the majority of those who teach at U.S. colleges and universities.”

If higher education wishes to maintain academic freedom for the ever-shrinking proportion of the faculty who enjoy tenure-track and tenured appointments, it said, “we must extend the guarantee of academic freedom -- through changes in institutional policies, professional norms and, ultimately, personal attitudes -- to those who do not.”

In response to questions about the degree of faculty involvement in developing the Gateway to Success curriculum, Pace reportedly told the investigating committee that meetings were held in February and May 2016 to solicit faculty input. But the AAUP committee concluded that it doesn't appear faculty members could have refused to go forward "without jeopardizing their future employment at the institution.” That's based in part on faculty interviewees reportedly saying that the curriculum meetings were really “presentations,” at which Pace and Keith, the achievement coach, shared retention-related data and reportedly declared, “There aren’t enough people passing; we need to get more people passing.”

Betsy Oudenhoven, college president, said in a statement that Aurora disagrees with the AAUP’s conclusions. The college launched the Gateway to Success initiative in collaboration with faculty disciplinary experts to determine how professors’ teaching strategies were either promoting or hindering success in gateway general-education courses, she said.

Gatekeeper courses were updated to better help students learn and “still meet the target learning goals set by the State Faculty Curriculum Committee,” she added, noting that the Colorado Department of Higher Education confirmed that the redesign met state standards for guaranteed transfer to four-year institutions.

In Bork’s case, Oudenhoven said, the department chair and achievement coach who observed him “discovered general instructional problems as well as difficulties in the implementation of the new curriculum they characterized as severe.” Moreover, she said, she didn’t receive any letter of complaint from Bork about the curriculum.

Bork, who is still teaching at Arapahoe Community College, said he did indeed inform administrators of his concerns, including in an email dated July 17. He could not share the Sept. 7 email that allegedly prompted his termination, he said, because he's lost access to his faculty email account as a result of his termination. Beyond that, Bork said he was a member of several committees that met regularly with the president, making her claims of ignorance all the more implausible.

As to the college’s assertion that he was terminated due to poor teaching, Bork pointed to the AAUP committee’s interview with the student in question.

“Pace did not tell the truth about what happened in my classroom that day and used that falsehood as justification to dismiss me,” he said.

No due process for adjuncts meant no opportunity to defend himself against the charges, he added so, after seven years “of stellar service to the college and its students, I was simply told I'd been fired over the telephone while I was getting an oil change.”

Pace did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Greg Scholtz, director of tenure, academic freedom and governance at AAUP, said he thought Bork's case was representative of others the association deals with, in that part-time professors typically serve on an at-will basis, making them "entirely disposable."

"If their administrative superiors are not satisfied with their service, for any reason, they simply do not offer them any course assignments for the next academic term, and there’s usually nothing the part-timer can do about it," he said. Yet Bork's case is unusual in that he was dismissed immediately.

Scholtz said he expects such cases to proliferate as colleges try to appeal to students in an increasingly competitive environment, and that even faculty members will feel the retention pinch.

"Bork claimed that he was fired because he criticized the college’s efforts to dumb down courses in order to improve student success," Scholtz said with a tone of irony. "In this increasingly consumer-oriented higher education environment, we also see a lot of faculty members -- full-timers and well as part-timers -- get into hot water because of student complaints."


 
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