Colleges Try to Get Rid of Inconvenient Professors

College officials have cultivated a nice image for themselves—scholarly people who care deeply about providing the best possible education for their students. The reality, however, is often very different. They can be petty, self-serving, and ideological, sometimes sacrificing educational quality in favor of other objectives.

Occasionally, faculty members become inconvenient to the leadership and must be eliminated. Two recent cases show college leadership at its worst.

Consider Professor Dennis Gouws of Springfield College in Massachusetts. Peter Wood explains in this Federalist article that on March 27, Springfield’s dean of arts and sciences, Anne Herzog, sent Professor Gouws a letter informing him that he had been placed on “Official Warning Status.” That sounds ominous—what had he done?

His story begins in 2005, when Gouws was asked by the Springfield English department to teach a course entitled “Men in Literature.” It turned out to be a rather popular course and Gouws, who holds tenure, taught it eight times between 2005 and 2015. But in 2015 a student lodged a complaint against the course with school leaders. It wasn’t that Professor Gouws had mistreated her, but simply that the course content, focused only on men, bothered her.

In a sensible era, officials would have said, “Well, then take something else if you’re offended,” but “progressive” academics seem incapable of insisting on common sense from students these days, especially if they’re in one of our supposedly oppressed groups. At Springfield, the result of the student’s gripe was to trigger what Wood terms “a feminist jihad” against a veteran, highly capable faculty member.

This has taken the form of a stream of harassments against him by school officials. His standard request for a sabbatical was denied. His syllabi for other courses have been questioned. He has been subjected to dozens of petty directives that don’t apply to other professors.

Moreover, Wood writes, “Gouws discovered that he stood in considerable risk if he agreed to meet with Dean Herzog in private. He found his recollections of what was said at such meetings were at wide variance with what Dean Herzog reported to others. And he found that his problems with teaching ‘Men in Literature’ had spilled into almost everything else he tried to do.”

Contributing greatly to his persona non grata status was the fact that Gouws had become an outspoken advocate for men on campus and had even disagreed in public with the notion that American campuses are in the grip of a rape epidemic.

When Gouws asked to know the reasons why he was being subjected to such treatment and said that he wanted them put in writing, his request was denied. When he asked to be allowed to bring a witness to meetings with officials, that too was denied.

So Gouws hasn’t really done anything, except to disagree with the militant feminism that’s running Springfield. He’s inconvenient and the dean wants him gone.

Incidentally, the English department offers “Women and Literature” and that’s perfectly all right.

Next consider Nathaniel Bork, an adjunct professor at Aurora Community College in Colorado. He’d been teaching philosophy and comparative religion at the college as an adjunct professor since 2010, without any incident.

Now Bork has lost his job because he didn’t agree with the administration’s efforts at making introductory courses easier to pass.

As we read in this Inside Higher Ed story, in September of last year Bork took a call from the chairman of his department, who told him that his employment was immediately terminated. The reason Bork was given for his abrupt termination was his supposed “lack of effectiveness in implementing the philosophy curriculum design.”

So a school feels the need to fire an experienced professor for “ineffectiveness” in September? You would expect that if such a faculty member were actually teaching ineffectively, college officials would inform him of the problem and work with him to remedy it.

Bork has a different explanation for the school’s action. He maintains that the reason for his firing was that he had complained that the department had dumbed down the introductory “gatekeeper” courses in an attempt to increase passage rates, thereby encouraging students to continue on at Aurora.

Encouraging students is fine, but watering down courses is not the way to go about that. Bork said that Aurora had told him to cut 20 percent of the material in his introduction to philosophy course, require fewer papers (and no more than a total of eight pages for the whole semester), and devote 30 percent of the course to women and minority philosophers.

Bork had resisted that, emailing his superiors, “Simply put, this class is now much easier to get an A in or pass than previously…. If the people we’re giving [A-pluses] to…are only doing the equivalent of high school work, 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.”

It seems clear that Bork was summarily fired not for any lack of “effectiveness,” but because he complained about being compelled to teach such a weak course and the administration’s decision to lower academic standards.

You shouldn’t be surprised at this. College administrators frequently want faculty to lower grading standards and reduce course content in order to keep more students happy. Rarely do the faculty members resist—after all, giving high grades in an easy course makes them more popular—but when they insist on keeping to their standards, the result is apt to be very painful for them.

College leaders always pay lip service to educational excellence, but they don’t always mean it. Educational excellence often collides with another priority of administrators, namely student retention. When it does, professors like Nathaniel Bork who want to maintain academic rigor become inconvenient.

What these cases (and many similar ones) demonstrate is the weakness of oversight in higher education. College officials shouldn’t think they have free rein to pursue petty vendettas against faculty members or fire those who want to uphold standards, but often they do.

  • Paul Brodwin

    Thanks to George Leef for this article. I fear the problem will only grow more widespread in the future. The article places the blame exclusively on administrators, but another cause (for public higher ed, at least) is the drop in state support. The administrators are only the visible face of a structural problem, as higher ed funding becomes a political football. How much should we actually blame administrators for scrambling to raise retention rates and hence dollars? In the public higher ed setting, they are just cogs in the neo-liberal de-funding machine. Nevertheless, Mr. Leef is right to emphasize the loss in educational quality and true value that results. (And it’s nice to read something from a graduate of Carroll Univ, across town from my own home).

    • George Leef

      Thanks for your comment, Mr. Brodwin. Higher education funding has sadly become a political football, but trustees and legislators should insist that college administrators put educational quality first, rather than trying to maximize their inflow of dollars. (Nor should private college trustees allow the kind of political vendetta on display at Springfield.) And I’m happy to know that you live in Waukesha. Way back when I was a student, it was still called Carroll College.

      • DrOfnothing

        Again, a contradictory proposition, Mr. Leef. Whether you agree with its ideological content and lax grading standards or not, the students-as-consumers are generally happy with the “product.” Unless you are advocating the restoration of public funding, and with it, more public accountability, you cannot demand that universities cut their own throats financially by supporting unpopular and/or disruptive professors, or those who grade so far off whatever the departmental and institutional norm is that they threaten enrolment numbers.

    • LocomotiveBreath

      The administrators are only the visible face of a structural problem, as higher ed funding becomes a political football. How much should we actually blame administrators for scrambling to raise retention rates and hence dollars?
      The ratio of empire-building administrators to actual teaching faculty grows geometrically. Getting rid of the Associate Vice Chancellor for paper clips would go a long way to solving the problem.

  • Rob Jenkins

    For every administrator at the fore of such atrocities, there is usually a gang of bitter, jealous faculty “colleagues” egging them on. (I speak from personal experience.) Much as been written about the phenomenon of academic bullying, in The Chronicle of Higher Education and elsewhere. Your only recourse, if you find yourself in such a situation, is to stand up to the bullies. Go to your professional association, if you belong to one. Hire a lawyer. Call the bullies out publicly, every chance you get. Ridicule their venomous irrationality, to their faces, in the paper, in faculty meetings, in blog posts. For some more specific (and perhaps less belligerent) advice, read this piece:

    • George Leef

      Thanks for your insights, Rob. This is a topic we should write more about.

    • George Avery

      Yeah, assuming a professional organization will actually stand up for you.

      • Rob Jenkins

        That’s a good point, George. Mine wasn’t as…forceful as I might have liked. However, I found that just bringing them into the conversation, and copying my local rep on all e-mail correspondence, had a sobering effect on the administration. it made them a lot more careful, which was to my advantage.

  • brd1066

    “Encouraging students is fine, but watering down courses is not the way to go about that. ….. College administrators frequently want faculty to lower grading standards and reduce course content in order to keep more students happy.”

    So true. There is a lot of talk at colleges about retention, graduation rates, etc… but very little talk about what is happening with the standards of education. Clearly, retention, and graduation rates are inversely proportional to the standards of education, so, putting the emphasis on the former, sounds like factory-like mass-production of ignorant graduates. That does bring some tuition money to colleges, but it is permanently damaging the future of our country, which needs highly educated graduates, not the happy ones who graduated only because the most important goal of their college was to increase graduation rate. However, there are honorable exceptions, like a recent one when a university teaching faculty was terminated for giving students all As and Bs – for nothing. Amazing, but it still happens some time.

    • George Leef

      Good points, to which I would add that this problem begins far back in K-12 education, where passing students who have learned nothing is all too common.

      • SDN

        That would be because if they actually failed students who couldn’t do the work, the racial quotas wouldn’t be met.

      • DrOfnothing

        Yes, this is what happens when you defund public primary education and support vouchers and charter schools instead. Betsy DeVos, whose praises have been sung on this site, will only make things worse.

        It’s silly to criticize problems caused by the policies that the JMC advocates.

  • AmyWell

    The biggest problem is that college level education is not the best route for many young adults. Many would be better served by vocational training. So instead of providing truly useful classes, we encourage students with no interest or aptitude to pursue college level classes and then dumb the classes down because they cannot or will not do the work. They graduate–if they do–with expensive but not very useful degrees.

    The goal of most university level learning is to teach thinking as much as to teach particular subjects, having learned to think and write a student will be prepared to think and write in many different professions. If the best profession for a given student does not require college level research, thought, and writing, why spend 10s of thousands of dollars getting one?

    • Dolores Ross

      Yes, the is the goal of university level learning but not the goal of most universities today. Sadly.

  • George Avery

    I can sympathize with Bork. My department chair at Purdue went full bore in efforts to deny tenure (despite being one of the top externally funded faculty members as well as one of the top-publishing members of the department faculty, with good teaching evaluations) after a few clashes, such as one over my suggestion that, since we were part of a reorganization creating a new college, we might look into other potential reorganizational issues at the same time – like separate kinesiology and public health departments instead of a combined and poorly fit single department. Add on that I had a contract with DoD, had done work for right-of-center think tanks like the Cato Institute, failed some athletes for cheating, etc. and I was a big target.

    • George Avery

      I would add that fellow *faculty* can be as big a problem as administrators. They DO play a big role in promotion/tenure decisions, as well as hiring decisions for new Deans and even Provosts.

      • George Leef

        Thanks for adding your insights, George. I have heard this phenomenon described as “academic mobbing.”

        • Dolores Ross

          I supervised a dissertation on the subject of academic mobbing – very interesting subject to study but thoroughly unpleasant when directed at oneself and even worse, when directed at a married couple – very, very ugly and thoroughly unacademic.

      • Professor X

        At my school, faculty mainly play a window dressing role when it comes to hiring the higher ups… Meaning the administration has only itself to blame for its hiring blunders.

  • Michael Hiteshew

    Mr Gouws should file a really fat lawsuit against his university, against Herzog, and ask for remedial restructuring of the entire university.

  • Michael Lang

    Gouws needs to stop playing the patsy and take legal action.

  • Matt_SE

    University has become Big Business, and therefore adopted a cynical outlook to match.

    • Jim

      No, “Big Business” responds to markets, profits and shareholders. Everything else is secondary.
      Schools have for the most part, evolved into politically correct safe spaces for Princess Snowflake. Education is secondary.

      • Matt_SE

        There’s a seedy underside to business as well as a good part. That’s the snake oil that runs rampant when regulators aren’t doing their jobs. Universities are selling a product that isn’t what they claim, and in many cases isn’t worth the price.
        But fraud has always accompanied the market, going back to at least when the phrase “caveat emptor” was coined.

        • Winston Smith

          Universities have no real skin in the game. A new set of suckers … uh … students … arrive every fall like clockwork. So, for the most part, what a University does or does not has no effect.

          Then, again, sometimes students and their parents figure out the scam. Mizzou is an example of that.

          A business has to make new sales every day. Their customers can go many other places for goods and services.

          Universities and Colleges share a monopoly when it comes to granting what are merely ‘Certificates of Educational Achievement’.

          Don’t get me wrong I have a couple of them. But all my real learning took place after the courses, on my own time.

          • DrOfnothing

            Yes, your erudition is clear in this even-handed and precise assessment of universities in America.

      • Dolores Ross

        They have created boards of sycophants who just want the glory and are told academics are beyond their realm of authority.

  • DrOfnothing

    The President of the James Martin Center needs to decide which course he is prioritizing. If he wishes universities to operate according to market-forces, and to empower students as “consumers,” as he has expressed many times before, then they have to be responsive if students or colleagues react negatively to a professor’s explicit and aggressive ideological advocacy, be it left or right. Like any other corporation, they will fire employees who create a negative work environment for whatever reason, be it politics or lack of personal hygiene.

    If, on the other, hand, he believes that faculty should be free to express their political leanings and that the administration should protect their freedom of speech above all else, then he should advocate public reinvestment in HE. Only the latter will give them the freedom to indulge the political whims of individual professors even when they antagonise their students and colleagues.

    You cannot have it both ways, Mr. Leef.

    • RTO Dude

      The problem here isn’t indulging “the political whims of individual professors”, Einstein. It’s the administrative power structure explicitly championing one ideology over any others. It’s noxious, and it’s carefully orchestrated, not accidental.

      I think I’ve encountered you before in education comment sections, re: global warming?

    • jbwilson24

      Why do you think that a market force approach to universities implies that students should have their every whim catered to?

      In many cases the ultimate holder of the checkbook for Ms Trigglypuff is her mother or father. In some cases, the federal government and its student loan program.

      Also, how can we talk about the situation in universities in general without mentioning tenure?

  • lospicaros

    One has to wonder if these colleges and universities have legal staffs that approve this behavior.

  • Dave Hunter

    And so the Professor and adjunct professor’s careers take very different paths because one (luckily) has tenure and the other does not.

  • Steve Gregg

    I can believe this. I taught junior college. One math class at 8 am had about 15 students but only three would show up on time. It was a ninety minute class. Students would trickle in over the next 45 minutes until I had about a dozen. One of the students complained halfway through the semester that I was flunking everyone. When I looked in my grade book, I found everyone was passing, through a few with high Ds. The dean called me in and told me we had to pass everyone. Fortunately, I did not need to change anything for them to pass, but, had they been lazier, I would have had to soften the course to keep my job. It was a pretty easy class. Everyone who did the homework got a B or better.

    • RogerRamjet

      I solved the problem of late arrivals by having a short quiz, over the assigned reading, during the first five minutes of class. For those who had read the material, the quiz was cake. For those who had not read it, they were toast. For those who were late, they lost 10% of their grade. It took me about a half hour to come up with a ten question, short answer quiz, and about ten minutes to grade it. It was well worth the time.

      • Steve Gregg

        Yes, I did the same thing. When most of the class didn’t show at the beginning of class, I wrote the answers on the board for those who were there.

  • banshee

    I was just a lowly TA in the ’70s. I had failed a student who never came to class or did any of the work. Then I got a phone call from an athletic director asking whether I could “do something” about the kid’s grade. I said no. I’m sure they went over my head to save their “student-scholar,” but that call really ticked me off.

  • jbwilson24

    “no more than a total of eight pages for the whole semester”

    That pretty much explains the legions of dribbling illiterates I meet in law school. Most of them can’t string a paragraph together without making three or four major grammatical errors. Something is wrong in undergraduate education, and likely elementary/middle/high school education as well.

  • Gregg Hammilton

    Fifteen years ago, I was one of those “seasonal help” adjuncts who found myself bouncing from job to job because two-year college administrators cared more about counting beans than having standards that lead to quality education. So I gave up and moved overseas to teach. My last three jobs in the US each saw one of my students’ grades overturned by some paper-pusher who never saw the stacks of essays I read every week. At the end of an interview for a full-time job at one place, I actually saw the president of the little two-year college turn in his seat and say to another hiring committee member: “I never understood why these are gate-keeper courses.” Well, if a student can’t write a decent essay after a semester of freshman comp, maybe they shouldn’t go any further! This same president, at the beginning of the semester had WELCOMED all of us adjuncts and prattled on about how his campus enrollment was at 10K and was going to be 15K soon! After I left, I was sorely tempted to snail mail him a couple ping pong balls: “Maybe with these, you’ll have the cajones to put standards first.” What absent standards? Well, for one, there was no department-wide grading scale for all English writing courses…

  • Dolores Ross

    Little known fact: some states have laws against private employers discriminating on the basis of political speech:

  • Catherine Colvin

    Inconvenient professors and inconvenient students will surely change the face of education with persistence and more time. Students becoming professors now will lead differently and prove they are genuinely interested in educating. This is what I am hearing from young people who are interested in real education.

    I was a 54 year old freshman student who relocated to Ashland, Wisconsin solely for the purpose of attending Northland College. Complaints about curricula from 2nd, 3rd, and 4th year students were common. I ignored them, thinking ‘what do these students mostly straight from high school know?’ Yet after a few weeks and despite the Harvard tuition, I was compelled to let go of a dream because education is a thin facade at Northland.

    Later I discovered MOOCs. At this point in my life, a degree is less important than being constructively occupied, and keeping the brain stretched and
    energized with new information. MOOCs are not for everyone, but at least I can disagree without being penalized. Or I can wait for a similar course with a more independent thinking professor.

  • GD Klein

    I taught for 33years in three research universities and ran into this problem with everyone of them. In the first instance, being non-tenured, I found another place to teach and do research, an Ivy League School. That worked out well until the chairman retired, but he promoted me to a tenured Assoc Prof. The new chairman and I had a falling out midway in the second year, hired a senior professor with whom he had a falling out immediately, and I found a better place to go in the “Big Ten.” On receiving a research award,I was promoted to a Full Professorship and two years later, the excrement hit the fan. In the end, I got the offending department head removed, a first in the history of that university which then instituted a review system every five years for department heads and deans.

    How did I do it? First, the university was on to this department head’s turning against his top professors, a troubling development in their eyes. Second I hired an attorney to advise, monitor the situation, but not to sue. That gave me a back channel to the administration which decided to conduct a major review,and the department head was out.

    WHy hire an attorney? A job is an asset’s and one protects one’s assets. SOmetimes you need a lawyer to do that (I agree, it’s not collegial, but collegiality is a cop-out to paper over things). In my case, it worked.

    After 33 years, I decided it was time to find another line of work because I couldn’t take the student lack of motivation and interest any more.

    George Devries Klein,
    Professor Emeritus, Geology, University of Illinois @ Urbana-Champaign