Free speech 201: The case of Mike Adams



A tenured professor at the University of North Carolina Wilmington was recently fired—or strong-armed into early retirement at age 55—for making some controversial statements on Twitter. His name was Mike Adams. I use the past tense because days after being fired he took his own life, his career and his reputation having been “cancelled,” to use the current term for this increasingly popular phenomenon. Tenured professors are not supposed to be fired for expressing opinions, including when those views are controversial or indelicately expressed, as some of his were. He was a Christian conservative at a time when university trends run very much in the opposite direction and have been for a long time. Professor Adams was also a prominent defender of free speech within the university and a critic of speech codes. He was fired by the chancellor of that university, a man by the name of Jose Sartarelli, who referred to some of Professor Adams’ tweets as “vile,” “distasteful,” “upsetting,” and a few similar epithets. I haven’t read any of Professor Adams’ books—he has published a few—and I’m not about to defend either his tweets, his political position, or his worldview as a whole. Professors know that when we make public statements, whether it’s writing a book or sending out a tweet, we can expect criticism. This is fair game. What we don’t expect is to have our careers destroyed, or ourselves.

I learned of his existence just a few weeks ago when I read a news story about his firing. As someone who cares more than a little about free speech, I sent an email to Jose Sartarelli to protest his action. Here’s what I wrote to him: “At a time when universities need to be reinforcing the principle of free speech, both within universities and the broader society, your university is sending exactly the wrong message at the wrong time. I am writing to express my disappointment and strong disapproval of the decision to part ways with Professor Mike Adams. I have never heard of Professor Adams before today, and I haven’t read his work. I’m also not well disposed to what he was quoted in news reports as saying, but the point isn’t whether I or anyone approves of what he has said but his right to speak without fear of censure. I view your university’s decision as an act of moral cowardice and hypocrisy—assuming your university at least professes to value freedom of expression and inquiry. I haven’t heard of University of North Carolina Wilmington before today and I don’t know how serious an institution it is, but I expect this episode will badly damage your university’s reputation.” I was trying to be diplomatic. I assume it’s not a serious institution at all. Mr. Sartarelli didn’t reply to my message and I don’t expect him to.

Professor Adams was a controversial individual. In some ways he didn’t fit the mold of what a contemporary university professor is, and this is part of what makes him interesting. Academics should not conform to a mold, and there should be no mold. His critics had every right to take exception to some of his public statements. Some of his critics asserted that a professor should “know better” than to cause offence in the way that he sometimes did. Let me say this to his critics: a professor’s job is not to make people feel the way they want to feel; it is to say what we know or believe and to ask questions, and some of this may be controversial. Academics and universities value controversy very highly. Well, not all of them do, but they’re supposed to. I gather Mr. Sartarelli and his colleagues at Wilmington do not, and many other university administrators also don’t, but a professor’s job is not to conform to an orthodoxy but to say and write what they believe and can provide evidence or an argument for. The content of Adams’ views or public statements is not the point. The point is that as a career academic he had more than a right to express them but an obligation to. Professors should also do their best to exhibit the intellectual virtues while they’re advancing arguments, but they’re not obligated to and many don’t. I take it that Adams was no diplomat—nor are a great many other academics and also many household names in the history of ideas. Academics don’t need to be diplomats. They need to “publish their findings” in the way they judge appropriate, and if some don’t want to hear what they have to say, so be it. They don’t need to read it at all, and if they choose to, and don’t like what they read, they are free to criticize it and that’s where it ends.

Many students assume that it’s the role of university administrators—presidents, chancellors, deans, and so on—to be intellectual leaders for the institutions that they work for. They are not. They are functionaries, and their role in the university is not to be intellectual leaders—most of them are not researchers at all—but to keep the wheels of the institution running, to keep the lights on, engage in fundraising, have their picture taken, and they earn very high salaries for doing so. Don’t imagine that because they don robes on ceremonial occasions that they possess profound knowledge. Their business isn’t knowledge—that’s the business of researchers who do the real work of any decent university. These institutions do need administrators—perhaps not a bloated army of them, as is now the norm—but their role does not extend beyond the managerial. If they are allowed to then many administrators will claim a larger role for themselves, and when they do, troubles ensue as they did at the University of North Carolina Wilmington.

Because of what happened at that questionable institution I decided to write and include the following paragraph in my future course outlines (the first one this coming semester is for a course on nineteenth-century continental philosophy where we look at Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and Dilthey), under the heading “Free Speech”: “In this and every course that I teach, all participants—students and the professor—have rights to free speech and free inquiry. The writers we will be studying, particularly the first two, express views that are controversial. Philosophy is controversial by design, and these writers are doing what philosophers are supposed to do. Any students who cannot handle controversial ideas should either broaden their horizons or take a different course—better the former. My own practice in courses like this one is to focus on these philosophers’ views, not my own. While I seldom express opinions of my own in a classroom or virtual classroom setting, I also reserve the right to do so. Students also have an absolute right to take any views they like in this course and in your essays, and they are also expected to back them up with an intelligent argument. There is no intellectual orthodoxy whatsoever in this course. These philosophers did not tow any party line, and we will follow their example. Philosophers and students of philosophy are freethinkers.” All of this should go without saying in an institution whose mission is to seek knowledge, and it currently doesn’t.

Professor Adams is no longer here to defend himself and right now it seems that the only ones who will are other Christian conservatives. I’m not a Christian conservative, but if I were, I wouldn’t be intimidated into silence. I’d be doing what an academic is supposed to do. Adams did his job and his right to do so was violated in a way that everyone connected to a university should worry about. This is the reason why tenure exists, by the way—to protect professors from governments and university administrators who will sometimes arrogate to themselves powers to which they are not entitled. Don’t be naive about universities. Free speech, free expression, and free inquiry are fundamental to their mission and their self-image, but if you don’t jealously guard these rights, whether you are a first-year student or a tenured professor, there’s a fair chance they will be taken away from you by the Sartarellis you will find in virtually every university today.

It’s normal human behavior to associate with people who share some of our affinities, and when these affinities are ideas to form intellectual societies of one kind or another, but universities need to prevent this phenomenon from going to extremes and they often do a poor job of it. Idealism and youthful enthusiasm readily degenerate into intolerance. Professor Adams was a dissenter amid the political orthodoxy that no university should have and most currently do. Picture a Hindu in the Vatican. You are welcome to be a tourist, but don’t expect to get a job there. Should a priest convert to Hinduism while there, he can expect to be shown the door, and that’s what happened to Adams. A university is not a church, a political party, or a club of like-minded souls, but it resembles one when individuals like Adams are ostracized for nonconformity. Many have noted a chill in the air in many universities today and there’s no doubting that it’s there. It always gives itself a fine-sounding name and preens itself on its virtue, but beneath the veneer lies a will to power that sees red when it’s questioned.

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