University of Colorado-Boulder Gets Failing Grade in Academic Freedom

American Association of University Professors finds violation in termination of conservative professor.

The Colorado affiliate of the American Association of University Professors has accused its state’s flagship university of hostility to academic freedom and recommends that scholars accept employment at the school only as a “last resort.” The charge stems in part from the University of Colorado-Boulder’s refusal to renew the 2007 contract of Phil Mitchell, an adjunct history professor at CU for more than two decades whose Christianity and political conservatism alienated him from colleagues.

“Mitchell was terminated for exercising his best professional judgment in his classroom,” the report of the Colorado Conference of the AAUP determined. “Furthermore, his rights to free expression were not recognized.” The organization points out that the University of Colorado’s published policy on academic freedom doesn’t differentiate between tenured and untenured professors.

The university had initially fired Mitchell in 2005, but rescinded the termination after a media uproar. In an appearance on The O’Reilly Factor that year, Mitchell explained that “several department chairs had said that my teaching is not up to the standards of the department and that I am too overtly Christian in the classroom.” Curiously, the AAUP found that Mitchell had won more teaching awards than the entire faculty of the special program in which he had taught and earned the highest student evaluations of any professor in the history department despite grading practices that placed him among the tougher half of history professors. The report, authored by AAUP officers and CU academics Don Eron and Suzanne Hudson, explains that “there is no evidence in [Mitchell’s] file that he was attempting to convert students to Christianity or to political conservatism, or forcing his opinions on them.”

Following the failed 2005 attempt to oust Mitchell, hostile colleagues began zealously compiling information on which to base his subsequent firing, the AAUP claims. Part of this involved vigilant classroom monitoring. “While standard practice is one yearly observation, Mitchell was observed seven times in a three semester period.” The campaign also included contacting a University of Massachusetts professor, who had been a teaching assistant of Mitchell’s fifteen years earlier, and inquiring whether he had ever heard Mitchell make any anti-gay remarks. The AAUP contends that the “four peer reviews since 2005” were basically “facsimiles of each other—reflecting the same talking points.” The report bluntly notes: “These reviews certainly do not read like disinterested evaluations; they read as if they were written to get someone fired.”

Mitchell details political and religious hostility from his earliest days at the University of Colorado. Mitchell recounts that in his very first class, one of his colleagues told the class that he would put evangelical Christians in concentration camps if had his way. When Mitchell quoted scholar Thomas Sowell in expressing dissent over a director of a diversity program’s advocacy of affirmative action, the director then berated the history professor as a racist. Sowell, like two of Mitchell’s adopted children, are African American. The AAUP document notes that colleagues raised unsubstantiated charges of anti-Semitism, homophobia, and sexism, and barred the Christian academic from teaching on religion. Mitchell now teaches at Colorado Christian University, where his faith is a more explicit part of his pedagogy. “As a follower of Jesus Christ, it is not possible for me to separate [faith and learning],” Mitchell explains on his new school’s website. “When Christ becomes the Lord of your life, He merges your discipline with your walk with Him.”

Undermining the message for some, providing balance for others, the AAUP also includes in its indictment of CU Ward Churchill, the controversial former chairman of CU’s ethnic studies department, who was fired after claiming that the 9/11 terrorists acted with “patience and restraint” and calling their World Trade Center victims “little Eichmanns.” Just as Mitchell’s status as an untenured adjunct professor may complicate the report’s message, Churchill’s plagiarism and false claims of Native American heritage complicate its indictment of the university on the grounds of academic freedom.

This controversy over faculty bias isn’t the first to envelope the University of Colorado. A 1990s Rocky Mountain News survey of selected departments at the school’s Boulder campus found a 31-1 Democrat-Republican imbalance. A subsequent survey of various departments in the liberal arts and the social sciences by the Center for the Study of Popular Culture revealed that 94 percent of those CU-Boulder faculty members had registered as Democrats.

“If [economics professor] Ann Carlos and the History Department at CU had merely said, ‘We recommend Mitchell not be re-hired because we don’t like his opinions,’ it’s doubtful that [college of arts and sciences] Dean [Todd] Gleeson would have concurred,” the AAUP investigation concludes. “What they did instead was contrive a case against him, as documented in this report. Anyone who values the free exchange of ideas should be disturbed.”

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