Prof sails against liberal tide
April 17, 2005
UNCW's Adams relishes role of combative contrarian
The News & Observer
WILMINGTON -- The door to the office of Mike Adams, associate professor of criminal justice at UNC-Wilmington, seems more like a window into his soul. The bumper stickers, fliers, advertisements, printouts and photographs attached to the door provide a vivid sociopolitical view of the office's occupant.
Can't feed 'em, Don't breed 'em
Every fourth baby dies from Choice
Straight white male -- The final minority
So you're a feminist. Isn't that cute
The door is so cluttered that its earlier decorations have been all but covered -- most notably the sign declaring Adams' office to be the campus "Men's Resource Center." The center's mission, Adams explains, is "to provide a safe haven or a comfort zone for men who feel that they are working and/or studying in a hostile environment." (UNCW has a Women's Resource Center, you see, the purpose of which -- well, you get it.)
The door's message is clear: This fella isn't your typical university professor. He's fiercely conservative and rarely hesitates to focus a weapons-grade sarcasm on the liberal pieties of his peers -- so much so that UNCW Provost Paul Hosier has had to soothe Adams' bruised colleagues on a couple of occasions.
Adams is a former atheist who returned to the Christian flock after a spiritual catharsis in a South American prison (He was a visitor, by the way, not a resident). He's an avid hunter who responds to criticism from animal-rights activists by describing the taste of his cooked prey with lip-smacking gusto.
Adams, 40, is a gadfly, but that's not unusual in and of itself. College campuses breed gadflies. Give professors tenure and you give them license to become raucous iconoclasts. Sure, Adams baits UNCW Chancellor Rosemary DePaolo by suggesting that if she started paying rent on the home she is provided at no cost, perhaps the chronic shortages of paper and toner in the student computer labs could be eased. But he does such things just to keep in fighting trim.
His biggest bouts are fought on a national stage. Mike Adams, the former beer-drinking, guitar-playing Mississippi frat boy, has turned himself into a high-visibility combatant in the college culture wars.
A low-profile start
Funny thing is, Adams wasn't looking for a fight.
Until four years ago, he was happy just to be the resident contrarian on the faculty of UNC-Wilmington, the 11,500-student institution widely known as UNC by the Sea. He'd arrived in 1993 after getting his doctorate from Mississippi State University. His early scholastic record gave the first hint of Adams' lack of interest in convention: He graduated near the bottom of his high school class, he says, and enrolled at MSU only after spending a couple of years at Texas' San Jacinto College.
But Adams thrived as a teacher. He's an engaging and lively speaker and has a knack for knitting topical legal issues into his lectures. His classes were popular, and reviews were good. In 1997, he was awarded tenure.
Adams acknowledges that there's little mystery to his success. It springs from the combination of style and subject: Adams' years of playing music in honky-tonks made him comfortable in front of groups, "and I'm blessed with the perfect subject," he says. Criminal justice is an endlessly interesting topic, so it's easy to hold the attention of students.
But all along, Adams was aware of a philosophical gulf between him and other faculty members.
This is hardly a news flash, but the people teaching your college students tend to be gentle, progressive souls with a selfless passion for the betterment of mankind (most favorable characterization); or committed radicals who can find something to like about any oppressive, totalitarian regime so long as it opposes America (the raving-blogger-in-his-pajamas characterization).
The matter is hardly worth debating. Anecdotal evidence of the widespread liberalism among the American professoriate is abundant -- UNC-Chapel Hill couldn't produce a single professor to argue on behalf of Republican foreign policy during a debate last fall, for instance -- and a recent study by three political science professors even put a number to the ideological imbalance. It found that 72 percent of college professors describe themselves as liberal, while only 15 percent call themselves conservative.
Still, Adams for the most part kept his own counsel on ideological matters. That changed shortly after 9/11 -- when UNCW administrators decided to read Adams' personal e-mail messages over his objections.
That's how activists are born.
A warrior is born
The controversy began on Sept. 15, 2001, when a UNCW undergraduate sent a long e-mail message to faculty and fellow students. The message started with a condemnation of the terrorist attack that had taken place just a few days before, then it declared that the tragedy was the natural result of America's "violent enterprises around the world."
It finished by steering readers to the World Socialist Web site for more details on America's alleged crimes and failings, and asked that the e-mail message be forwarded to anyone who supports "open, unbiased, democratic discussion of the facts."
Adams sent a short, curt reply. He noted that the Constitution "protects your speech just as it has protected bigoted, unintelligent, and immature speech for many years." But he also warned the student that she had opened herself to criticism that likewise "is protected by the same principles."
Boy, was he wrong. Adams' response didn't get much protection at all.
Adams forwarded the e-mail message, as its author had requested. Not surprisingly, many people didn't react graciously to the declaration that America had brought 9/11 upon itself. The undergraduate "received a torrent of criticism," says the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a Philadelphia-based advocacy group that provides legal help in defense of civil liberties on campus, and which later prepared a report on the Adams matter.
In other words, the student learned that the marketplace of ideas can be a rough-and-tumble place. She responded by complaining to UNCW administrators that Adams had defamed and tried to intimidate her, and asked to review his e-mail messages to prove her claim.
The administration refused her request for a while -- then reversed direction and demanded to see the messages.
Several officials crowded into Adams' office and, over his objections, opened Adams' e-mail account and reviewed its contents. Nothing was found that would support the student's charge.
But as the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education later pointed out, it should never have come to that. The student's claim of intimidation and defamation was "baseless," it said, and "UNCW should have shown the courage necessary to protect its faculty's freedom of speech and privacy."
Ignoble as the whole affair was, Adams reaped two benefits. He became a momentary cause celebre, appearing on Fox News' "Hannity & Colmes" and being written about by national columnists.
Better yet, UNCW's then-provost, seeking to limit the damage, confirmed in writing that faculty members have the right "to speak open and freely in support of whatever position they choose."
Adams had this reaction: "That's my free speech ticket."
A national platform
That ticket now gets punched on a regular basis on townhall.com, the longstanding conservative Web site that features such culture warriors as Ann Coulter and David Horowitz. Adams was invited in 2003 to write a column on the plight of conservatives on campus and has done so every week ever since.
"He's a brave guy," Horowitz says of Adams' advocacy. "It means giving up the prospect of any accolades [in academia]."
The columns generally focus on Adams' two pet issues: the growing tendency of college administrators to institute codes forbidding "hate speech" (which, Adams believes, either deliberately or inadvertently silences people who oppose concepts like same-sex marriage); and religious discrimination on campus -- specifically, the quiet discrimination that he claims keeps conservative Christian professors from being hired, and the overt discrimination that keeps Christian groups from getting formal campus recognition.
Adams admits that he encountered no discrimination when he was hired at UNCW. But there was a ready explanation for that, he says: "I was an atheist and a Democrat [at the time]."
Others weren't so lucky, he says. Adams, who has served at times on committees responsible for hiring professors, said he has direct or secondhand knowledge of a number of instances when job applicants were rejected on the basis of their beliefs.
One was labeled "too religious," he says, while others were deemed "too conservative," "too much of a family man" and -- in the case of a female applicant whose husband attended dinner during the interview -- guilty of being married to a man who played "too dominant a role in the marriage."
Hosier, the provost, says religious belief and political leanings "don't have any bearings in [applicants'] qualifications." However, Hosier understands that administrators need to stay alert to the natural inclination of people to hire like-minded colleagues -- which is why, he says, "I've tried to signal to our deans that we cherish diversity in our faculty ranks."
But Adams doesn't dwell exclusively on academic life at UNCW. In the past year he has written about the speech code at the University of Alabama, Christian groups' difficulty in getting official recognition at UNC-Chapel Hill and Gonzaga University, and Marquette University's blocking of a benefit by its College Republicans in support of the war effort (and of military snipers in particular).
Other times -- seemingly just to keep himself in high dudgeon -- his column has focused on some bit of eyebrow-raising academic behavior, such as the professor at N.C. Wesleyan College who posed in terrorist chic (black hood and automatic weapon) for a photo on her conspiracy-theory-laden Web site. (Have a child studying political science at N.C. Wesleyan? Visit faculty.ncwc.edu/Jchristensen/ to see what your student is encountering.)
No tilts at windmills
Surprisingly, at least to those who think all conservatives have a bugaboo about liberal bias on campus, Adams doesn't care about political leanings. "People say, 'We need to fight against bias,' " he says. "Well, everybody's biased. I don't want to protect [students] against discomfort. Bias is just an annoyance. It's the fly in your barbecue sauce, not the bear in your tent."
That's why Adams sometimes declines to strap on his armor and gallop off to other campuses to do battle. He gets requests for help on a daily basis, "but a lot of them are stupid," he says.
Your professor's a liberal? So what? As Adams likes to say, the Constitution doesn't protect you from other people's disturbing opinions.
Adams usually saves his ink for those instances when he thinks bias has evolved into discrimination. In addition to writing about such cases, Adams also occasionally refers aggrieved parties to an informal network of lawyers who have volunteered to work pro bono. Other times he'll steer complainants to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education -- whose president, David French, is an admirer of Adams.
"He's become one of the most influential commentators on the problems with civil liberties on campus," French says. "He's invaluable." And that's not the praise of a like-minded soul: The foundation is nonpartisan, and French admits that Adams' points of view regularly prompt winces around the office.
As you might imagine, admiration is not a universally shared response to Adams. For instance, Elizabeth Ervin, a UNCW professor of English who is active in the campus Women's Resource Center, says, "I just don't really think he's contributing all that much." When asked to elaborate, she refused: "I don't want to give the guy any more attention."
In addition to his weekly column on the Web, Adams has published a book, "Welcome to the Ivory Tower of Babel," and is at work on a second. Adams says he's also starting to get "those phone calls" -- early, tentative contacts from think tanks and public policy groups that wonder if he ever considers leaving academic life.
"I'm not ready," Adams says. "It ain't time."
But that's the obvious -- and only -- career direction for Adams at this point, French says: "The odds of him being welcomed to the faculty of any other campus are slim."
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