“Death by a Thousand Cuts”: Professor Files Lawsuit Against NC State University

Incidents of academics being targeted for their views are on the rise, according to a new report by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE). FIRE notes that the number of targeting cases has sharply increased from 24 incidents in 2015 to 113 in 2020. Unfortunately, that trend doesn’t appear to be slowing down in 2021. 

But one professor at North Carolina State University has decided to push back. Stephen Porter is a professor in the College of Education, where he teaches graduate courses in statistics, causal inference, and workflow of data analysis. A conservative, Porter claims that university officials retaliated against him for expressing his views and has filed a lawsuit against the university.  

The Martin Center recently spoke with Porter about the lawsuit he filed against NC State. His attorney, Samantha Harris, also participated in the interview. Harris previously worked at FIRE and now runs her own law firm. This transcription has been edited for clarity and length.

How long have you been a professor at NC State?

That’s a good question. I think I’m in my 11th year. 

In a recent blog post, you wrote that you are a political conservative and have “been targeted by the woke mob at NC State.” In one instance, you said were attacked by faculty colleagues for questioning a proposed teaching evaluation item on diversity. Do you mind telling us what that item was?

I’d have to look at the exact wording, but it was basically something along the lines of: “were issues related to diversity addressed in the course?” —which is very different from all of our other teaching evaluation items, which basically address how the course is taught: Was the instructor prepared? Was the instructor easy to communicate with? Things like that. And so I raised a series of questions about having this content-based question used in our teaching evaluations, during a department meeting, when a college representative came by and announced that this was a potential new question.

You criticized a conference for its heavy emphasis on social justice. You were later publicly castigated for those comments. Can you tell us about what happened and how you were pressured to participate in a public meeting with students to discuss their feelings about what you said? Did you actually participate in such a meeting? 

My research area is post-secondary research, higher education. And so there’s a major conference called the Association for the Study of Higher Education. And a colleague of mine had sent me a little analysis he’d done, kind of a word search for different topics in the latest conference program. It was clear that the conference had shifted from policy-oriented or administrative-oriented research towards a lot of social justice stuff. So I posted that on my blog, I thought it was quite interesting, and gave it the title “ASHE,” which is the acronym for the conference, “Has Become a Woke Joke.” And, as a consequence, this blew up on Twitter. 

The President of the association, a couple of months later, during her keynote address to the entire conference (I was not there), put my picture up on the screen behind her and sort of castigated me for several minutes for daring to criticize the emphasis on social justice in the conference. It’s a pretty big conference, [there were] probably several hundred people in the crowd. After that, there was a big push for me to have a public meeting with students and faculty in the College of Education to discuss my blog post, which I declined. 

The purpose of the proposed meeting was to air students’ feelings about your blog post?

They are trying to seek many different ways to make my life as miserable as possible.

Yes,  I had this very long email exchange with my department head at the time, Penny Pasque, and other faculty members were pushing for this. And I kept asking, “what’s the purpose of this meeting? This is a personal blog post, not anything involved with my work at NC State.” They kept repeating things about faculty and student concerns. And I kept asking, “What are these concerns?” I think the concern was [that] I dared [to] criticize social justice, but they didn’t want to actually come out and say that. So we had this long exchange and I sort of politely declined and said I’m happy to meet with any faculty or students who want to come by my office and chat about this. I’m happy to do so but I don’t really see the point of a public meeting addressing my personal blog post.

How long have you been dealing with these kinds of problems at NC State?

Three years now, I think it’s been going on.

So this hasn’t been for your whole tenure at NC State.

No, if you think about it, this whole woke movement really didn’t take off until a few years ago. I think most academics would agree—privately, if not publicly, because most people are kind of scared to speak out—that academia really has changed quite a bit in the past five years. Five years ago, you could say, for example, “we should have colorblind treatment of students.” That would be seen as relatively controversial nowadays, you’d be labeled as a racist for saying something like that.

Do you mind highlighting a few of the other instances where you feel like you were targeted?

I was removed against my will from a master’s program that I was associated with, the higher education master’s program. After that, I was told that I was still a member of the PhD program. I should add that I teach in a department where we don’t have any undergraduate students, we just have master’s students and PhD students, basically adults who are looking for a credential, either a master’s or a PhD for their career. And so even though I was told I was a member of the Ph. D program, I was not allowed to attend any meetings in which PhD topics were discussed. They told me: Well, that’s just a meeting for the master’s program, but it was clearly a meeting to address both master’s and PhD topics. So, I was shut out of faculty meetings for a couple of years.

I was threatened with the addition of a fifth course to my teaching load, which if you’re not familiar with the way research universities work, it’s very unusual for any tenured faculty member to teach more than four courses a year. Certainly, to my knowledge, no one is being required to teach a fifth course against their will. They might do it voluntarily if a colleague is ill at the last minute at the beginning of the semester, and they need to take an extra course to help students out. They have held off on doing that [to me] when I challenged that by filing a grievance, but it’s still on paper in my personnel file, and it’s still kind of hanging over my head. Every semester, I’m kind of waiting to see whether or not they’re going to make me do that. It’s sort of this process where they try to wear people down. 

They know they can’t fire me outright because I have tenure. I have an excellent record. I have excellent teaching evaluations. I’ve got a good strong research record, I do lots of service. My annual evaluations have been fine. Up to now, my post-tenure review has been fine. Instead, it’s sort of like this death by a thousand cuts, they are trying to seek many different ways to make my life as miserable as possible.

I’m very sorry to hear that. And you believe this is because of the views you’ve expressed publicly?

Yes, I do.

In your blog post, you also note that the university violated your First and Fourteenth Amendment rights. If you don’t mind, Ms. Harris, could you remind our readers about what rights are protected under those amendments and how the university’s actions violate professor Porter’s rights?

Samantha Harris: Sure, public universities are considered instruments of the state. And through the First and Fourteenth Amendments, state entities are required to uphold First Amendment rights, which include the right to freedom of speech, right to freedom of the press, and so on and so forth. So when a state institution retaliates against a public employee for speaking out on a matter of public concern, this raises First Amendment issues. And professor Porter speaking on his blog was obviously raising issues of public concern. And so any retaliatory action that a school takes against him for that violates those rights.

Tell us a little bit about the lawsuit. When was it filed? And is there a timeline or any other details about the content of the lawsuit that you’d like to share with us? 

Samantha Harris: Unfortunately, a lawyer’s job is very often just to be kind of a wet blanket and say, “Oh, we can’t discuss that.” So we can’t talk obviously about any kind of litigations strategy. The suit itself was filed a couple of weeks ago, but there’s a decent period of time then that the other side has to respond. And so we are just in that period of time now. 

At some point, a schedule will be set for motions and discovery and things like that. The federal courts maintain a database called Pacer, where you can track lawsuits, the dockets are publicly available. So for example, the complaint, although I know that professor Porter has also posted a copy of it on his blog, that complaint is public and is available through the federal courts’ website. As additional information becomes available in the case, I’m sure professor Porter will be writing about it, but it will also all be publicly available on the website of the federal courts.

Professor Porter, you said that these issues of retaliation for views that you’ve expressed started around three years ago. Does that coincide with the observations that you made on your blog?

That’s a good question. For quite some time, I’ve been kind of mocking the social justice movement in higher ed on my blog. One of my taglines is “academic fascists.” This really started when we had a new department head come in four years ago, Penny Pasque, who’s a big social justice warrior. And so I think it’s those two events, where not only do we have a big social justice leader come into our department, but also, as we talked about, there’s been kind of a big change in the atmosphere of higher ed of what seems acceptable speech. 

She has moved on from that role, correct?

That’s correct. It was July 2019 when she left and now we have an interim department head, John Lee, who’s continued— he’s the one who’s actually prevented me from attending the faculty meetings where the PhD program was discussed.

On the subject of the PhD program, you noted that they were slowly taking away resources from that program, and that there was a new program that existed side by side with it that you’re not a part of. Can you tell us about that?

Yes. The original higher education program was simply called the “Higher Education Program.” And I should say that, based in our department, we have several different program areas, they’re basically specialties where students can specialize. We have a specialty in counselor-ed, we have a specialty in adult education. Last year, the higher education faculty, particularly the ones who are very much into social justice, decided to break away and form another specialization called Higher Education Opportunity, Equity, and Justice, which for all intents and purposes is basically a duplicate of the current higher ed program. 

The whole notion is kind of absurd that we would have two program areas in one department focused on higher ed. In fact, at one point a couple of years ago, our dean was pushing [for the] higher education and adult education [areas] to merge for efficiency’s sake, because in most colleges of education there’s really only one specialization devoted to anything post-secondary. So now we in essence have three specializations in our department focused on post-secondary areas, which doesn’t make a lot of sense.

And how has that affected the program that you participate in?

A bunch of faculty left. So now we really have two full-time faculty associated with the program. We ran a big recruitment weekend where prospective students [would come] to interview for assistantships, and now we’re being told that we cannot participate in that. That’s basically being taken over by this other program area. And so we’re a little bit in limbo right now trying to figure out how we’re going to move forward for the future.

You had noted on your blog that one of your colleagues was trying to get you out of the master’s program, possibly with the end goal of ousting you altogether?

It was Penny Pasque. Back at that time point, we treated the two programs as one. She wanted me to step away from both on a couple of different occasions, and I declined each time. It was clear she wanted me out. And it was clear, I think, because of my political views.

Shannon Watkins is associate editor at the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal