Friday, August 12, 2022

As pressure mounts on multiple fronts, is UNCW’s Mike Adams still untouchable?

UNCW Professor Mike Adams
UNCW Professor Mike Adams (Photo courtesy Facebook)

WILMINGTON — For years, University of North Carolina Wilmington Professor Mike Adams’ controversial social media posts have been protected by the First Amendment, his tenured status, and perhaps the pall cast by his nearly $700,000 victory over the university. But now, as fellow professors, former students, and national media turn up the heat, the University says it is reviewing its options.

Adams is a conservative Christian and his Tweets and Facebook posts frequently skewer what he sees as moral failings, logical flaws, or hypocrisies in liberal and progressive circles. Adams has posted and written about public officials, students, his colleagues (including a now-deleted post about UNCW Chancellor Dr. Jose V. Sartarelli), and his critics. 

Adams has often said his speech is protected under the First Amendment, and the University has defended him, albeit begrudgingly. To his critics, the language he uses is inflammatory and, at times, bigoted.

In late May, Adams posted of Twitter about Governor Roy Cooper’s executive orders closing many businesses in North Carolina in an attempt to manage the Covid-19 pandemic.

“This evening I ate pizza and drank beer with six guys at a six seat table top. I almost felt like a free man who was not living in the slave state of North Carolina. Massa Cooper, let my people go,” Adams Tweeted.

Adams did not respond to repeated emails asking for his side of the issue, but he did briefly defend the Tweet to journalist Ann McAdams at WECT, saying the analogy wasn’t about race.

Protests, petitions, statements

Graffiti calling for Professor to be fired. (Port City Daily photo / Facebook)

As with many of Adams’ posts, it wasn’t what he said but how he said it that offended people. Many have been critical of Cooper’s executive orders as government overreach, but the implicit comparison to chattel slavery and the use of the word ‘Massa’ — to some, a mockery of slavery-era black speech — sparked uproar. And, for many, it wasn’t just about a single Tweet as much as it was about Adams’ history of posts on social media.

Chancellor Sartarelli did not respond to questions about how far the protections of the First Amendment and Adams’ tenure extended, nor did he respond to questions about whether the expensive litigation against Adams from 2007 to 2014 factored into decisions about disciplining him.

The University did issue a statement, which did not directly name Adams but was issued in response to questions about him. The statement read in part:

“Hateful, hurtful language aimed at degrading others is contrary to our university values and our commitment to an environment of respect and dignity. Its appearance on any platform, including the personal platforms of anyone affiliated with UNCW, is absolutely reprehensible. However, no matter how upsetting and distasteful the comments may be, they are expressions of free speech and protected by the First Amendment. The rights of free expression must apply to the full spectrum of content, even speech that may be offensive to the members of our university community and the general public. That said, please know that the university’s constitutional obligations and support of free expression do not lessen our displeasure or disgust when those viewpoints offend or otherwise upset those who read these comments. We stand firmly against these expressions of hatred, and the university is reviewing all options in terms of addressing the matter.”

The statement concluded acknowledging that the above was not a “fully satisfactory response to your concerns.”

It’s worth noting that previous statements from UNCW had not included language like ‘reviewing all options.’ The University went slightly further over the weekend, telling CNN “we are not just listening; we can confirm we are very carefully and assertively reviewing our options in terms of how to proceed. We are not able to comment further at this time, as this is a personnel matter.”

As of Monday morning, two separate petitions calling for the removal of Adams by the University had reached 52,000 and 22,000 signatures. Many included comments from former students, who shared screen-shots of Adams’ past posts. Coverage by WECT, StarNews, and then CNN were followed by a statement from the faculty of Sociology and Criminology, signed by 19 out of the other 25 members in Adams’ department, including the vice-chair but not the chair.

“As members of the faculty in the department of Sociology and Criminology at UNCW, we issue this public statement to make clear our position regarding the vitriolic writings of Mike Adams. We view his current and past statements that are steeped in racism, homophobia, Islamophobia, and sexism, as repugnant and not in keeping with the values of our department,” those faculty members wrote (you can find the full statement below). The faculty members’ message concluded by saying that they do not feel the matter has yet been resolved appropriately.

But Adams has been the target of petitions in the past, and his colleagues have spoken out before. In prior incidents, Adams has prevailed — and the threat of litigation has never been far from the controversies around him.

Adams and UNCW

Adams’ contentious relationship with UNCW dates back at least to 2006, when he was denied a promotion — in his view for his conservative political and religious stance — despite being twice named professor of the year.

The following year the Alliance Defending Freedom filed suit on Adams’ behalf. After a seven-year battle, a federal jury ruled in Adams’ favor, deciding that UNCW illegally retaliated against Adams when it denied him a promotion in 2006 because of his conservative views.

The Adams v. The Trustees of the University of North Carolina–Wilmington case was settled after UNCW agreed to drop an appeal in federal court. Adams was awarded a promotion to full professor, $50,000 in back pay, and $615,000 in legal fees.

The legal victory appeared to have chastened the University, but Adams colleagues still spoke out against him.

In September 2016, the Daily Wire published an article by Adams – “Queer Muslim Jihad?” – that publicly named and mocked then-student Nada Merghani. Students and graduates of UNCW called for his removal and circulated a petition that garnered 5,000 signatures.

Adams’ colleagues charged him with “harassment and discriminatory treatment of students.” Adams called the statement ‘defamation,’ and threatened to sue them.

In August of 2019, Adams Tweeted that he had completed a five-year tenure review and that coming five years would be ‘painful’ for some — presumably meaning he intended to continue to post on social media about the issues he had spoken out about for years.

What now?

Currently, it’s unclear what UNCW’s incremental change in tone means for the University’s relationship with Adams.

Under the code of the UNC System, specific guidelines are given for the discipline of tenured professors, which lay out several acceptable reasons for ‘discharging’ (firing) or sanctioning (disciplining) a faculty member:

  • Incompetence, including significant, sustained unsatisfactory performance after the faculty member has been given an opportunity to remedy such performance and fails to do so within a reasonable time;
  • Neglect of duty, including sustained failure to meet assigned classes or to perform other significant faculty professional obligations; or
  • Misconduct of such a nature as to indicate that the individual is unfit to continue as a member of the faculty, including violations of professional ethics, mistreatment of students or other employees, research misconduct, financial fraud, criminal, or other illegal, inappropriate or unethical conduct. To justify serious disciplinary action, such misconduct should be either (i) sufficiently related to a faculty member’s academic responsibilities as to disqualify the individual from effective performance of university duties, or (ii) sufficiently serious as to adversely reflect on the individual’s honesty, trustworthiness or fitness to be a faculty member. These sanctions may be imposed only in accordance with the procedures prescribed in this section. For purposes of this Code, a faculty member serving a stated term shall be regarded as having tenure until the end of that term.

If the University pursues the issue, whether or not Adams is considered to have been incompetent, negligent, or guilty of misconduct may ultimately be decided in a hearing. In that case, if both Adams and UNCW agreed to an open proceeding, the public would finally be able to witness both sides lay out their case. Such a hearing would be a potential landmark in determining just how far First Amendment protections extend.


Full statement from Sunday, June 8, from members of the faculty of the Sociology and Criminology department:

Attached and below please find a response authored by several faculty members in the Department of Sociology and Criminology at UNCW. We hope this statement makes it very clear where we stand on this issue.

As members of the faculty in the department of Sociology and Criminology at UNCW, we issue this public statement to make clear our position regarding the vitriolic writings of Mike Adams. We view his current and past statements that are steeped in racism, homophobia, Islamophobia, and sexism, as repugnant and not in keeping with the values of our department. As educators, we deplore actions taken by any persons that only serve to denigrate and demean members of our communities. As sociologists and criminologists, we are concerned by the disconnect between his most recent language and the empirical research on race, racism, and the criminal justice system. It is concerning to us that a person in a position to teach aspects of the criminal justice system, is not exposing systemic racism and inequalities, but rather is sustaining and reinforcing them. This is not what students deserve. This goes against the very fabric of decency, compassion, and community. This is not who we are.

We colleagues in the department of Sociology and Criminology value the learning environment and recognize that forms of harm, whether physical or emotional, have no place here. In keeping with the Seahawk Respect Compact, we affirm the dignity of all persons, promote free and equal exchange of thoughts and opinions within a climate of civility and mutual respect, and seek to eliminate prejudice and discrimination. His behavior has not been in keeping with this compact. We do not see this matter as having yet been resolved in a manner consistent with what UNCW students, faculty, staff, as well as the larger community deserve. We stand solidly with all those who have expressed outrage and disgust at the racist, vile writings of a member of our department. 

Signed,

  • Jean-Anne Sutherland
  • Jennifer Vanderminden
  • Ann Rotchford
  • Jill Waity
  • Shawn Bingham
  • Kristen DeVall
  • Meghan Rogers
  • Daniel Buffington
  • Erin Michaels
  • Christy Lanier
  • Angie Wadsworth
  • John Rice
  • Christopher Shane Elliott
  • Babette Boyd
  • Shannon Santana
  • Tim Gill
  • Justin Smith
  • Kristin Godwin
  • Kenneth Mentor

Related Articles