Abusing Contingency for the Sake of Political Expediency

Four years ago, I wrote a post called Abusing Contingency for the Sake of Logistics, in which I argued that it’s an abuse of human decency to use a contingent faculty member’s (or any contingent worker’s, for that matter) contingent status as a way to solve a problem that has nothing to do with the faculty member’s performance.

Friday morning, the AAUP’s Academe blog reported on the firing of an adjunct faculty member at Babson College in Massachusetts. Read the story there for details; for now, what’s relevant is that the faculty member, Asheen Phansey, said something snarky on Twitter, drew a bunch of right wing outrage that got directed towards college management, and was summarily dismissed even though he apologized for the post.

I’ve made this point before, most recently in a talk at the National Communication Association conference in November 2019:

Fresno State University was confronted twice between Fall 2017 and Spring 2018 with faculty who posted “inflammatory” tweets that weren’t work-related. Lars Maischak in August 2017 tweeted “Trump must hang!” Randa Jarrar responded to the hagiography of Barbara Bush after Bush’s  death in April 2018 with a profane tweet about how much of a racist Bush was. When Trump supporters screamed at the university to fire Maischak, they did. When right-wingers screamed at Jarrar, she responded, “They can’t fire me. I have tenure!” In response to demands that she be fired, the university disowned the content of her tweets but explained that she has First Amendment rights they can’t contravene, and rightly didn’t discipline her.

The NTT person got fired, and the tenured person didn’t. And for the record, no, I’m not wishing she’d been disciplined.

What really surprised me about this situation was the reaction I got when I said something on Facebook about Randa Jarrar’s proclamation that tenure would protect her. My post said, basically, that I wish she hadn’t invoked tenure as cover for already-protected free speech because it just invites people who hate tenure to blame it for protecting her, and worse, by implication, asserts that non-tenure-track faculty shouldn’t be protected for their speech.

So here we are again. Asheen Phansey has been fired for a tweet. If you’re inclined to say something about this, and if you’re concerned in the least bit about academic labor, you should be, feel free to use or ignore any of this letter I sent to President Spinelli at Babson:

Dear President Spinelli:

I read with grave dismay on Friday morning about the firing of Asheen Phansey for his admittedly bad-taste social media post satirizing President Trump’s threats against Irani cultural sites.

Whatever your opinion about the social media post itself, even if it weren’t satire and even had Phansey not apologized profusely for it, your willingness to dismiss him without even a sniff of due process is distressing. According to the AAUP, your own college website makes clear that there are governance standards that have been broken in this case. The fact that he’s adjunct faculty, and also serves in a staff position, does not absolve the college of following your own rules and standards.

Worse, and without knowing your personal politics (obviously) maybe I’m just encouraging you by saying this, by giving in to the whims of a handful of loud rightwing anti-academics, you’ve encouraged them to do more of the same every single time anyone associated with any college or university says something they don’t like. I wish there were a polite way to say this, but your college’s response is as dismal a failure of leadership as I can recall seeing. If I were a faculty member there, I’d wonder if there are any circumstances in which I could expect you to protect and support me.

As a faculty member, it saddens me to no end to know that I have colleagues anywhere who so easily get hung out to dry when they say something a handful of highly reactive people don’t approve of. It scares me to know that I have colleagues at Babson who may not feel like they can do or say anything the least bit controversial. It distresses me to know that a minor mistake and an apology are firing offenses. None of this is right.

On behalf of Prof Phansey, the faculty of your institution, and of adjunct faculty everywhere who live in fear of dismissal over nothing, and whose fears you’ve now reinforced, I encourage you to reverse the firing decision and allow Prof Phansey due process as provided by the faculty senate and your own governing documents. Academics all over the US are watching to see how this goes. You have an opportunity to reverse a terrible error and provide a model for how to handle a faculty member’s mistake, his contrition, and a political subculture’s belief that it gets to make the rules for everyone.

Thanks for your attention, and I dearly hope to see public updates that you’ve done the right thing.

Seth Kahn, PhD

One Response to Abusing Contingency for the Sake of Political Expediency

  1. Jennifer Jackson says:

    Thank you for this thoughtful and timely response to Babson’s administration. You’re right to defend adjuncts and TT as well as tenured faculty. We have to work together in such difficult times.

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