Campus cleansing

Education | A conservative Christian is banished from a university's supposed marketplace of ideas

Issue: "States' rights," Oct. 27, 2007

Phil Mitchell wants his job back. For 17 years, the University of Colorado graduate taught courses in U.S. history and Western Civilization at his alma mater in Boulder, earning some of the highest student evaluation scores in the school's history. But earlier this year, university officials began nitpicking Mitchell's teaching methods and questioning his pedagogical ability. In June, the star instructor received official notice that CU was terminating his employment.

Why? Mitchell calls the move "an outrageous injustice clearly motivated by religious bigotry." Unlike the overwhelming majority of his colleagues, he is a politically and theologically conservative Christian-and an outspoken one, to boot.

For the past several months, Mitchell has taken his story to the public, repeating a strategy that saved his job the last time CU sought to remove him two years ago. This time, university officials are standing firm, a position that casts Mitchell as a disgruntled ex-employee bent on playing the victim.

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But now a disinterested third party organization has stepped in to defend Mitchell's complaint as far more than sour grapes. The local chapter of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), a liberal group, published a report last month suggesting that Mitchell's removal smacked of an "academic hit job."

Don Eron, treasurer of the AAUP's CU chapter and coauthor of the report, told WORLD that CU's treatment of Mitchell amounts to an "egregious" affront to academic freedom. The national office of the AAUP is now considering whether to launch a full-scale investigation into the matter. Robert Kreiser, a senior program officer for the AAUP's national headquarters in Washington, D.C., declined to comment on the specifics of the case but told WORLD that Eron's report has grabbed his attention, given that local chapters rarely conduct such investigations.

Eron, who is Jewish and politically liberal, began looking into the case because he believes "we need guys like Phil on campus, expressing those ideas. That's the purpose of a university, even though I would probably agree with him on very little."

The 59-page report meticulously narrates the evolution of Mitchell's treatment at CU over the past several years, noting numerous laudatory evaluations from fellow instructors and program directors. One colleague called Mitchell "the sort of teacher who sticks with a person long after his or her school days are past. Each of us has had a teacher or two like Professor Mitchell. They make the education process come alive."

But in 2004, the first sign of dissatisfaction emerged when history department chair Thomas Zeiler informed Mitchell he could no longer teach courses within the history curriculum due to a complaint of classroom proselytizing. The complaint stemmed from Mitchell's assigned reading of In His Steps by Charles Sheldon, a best-selling 19th-century novel on Protestant liberalism that illustrates the spiritual and political mindset of the period.

Zeiler reversed his decision after learning the reason for the complaint, but less than a year later the history department again sought to block Mitchell from teaching because, according to Dean Todd Gleason, he did not meet department standards and preached to students. Mitchell promptly publicized what he viewed as unfair treatment, appearing on national news and commentary shows, a tactic that drove CU suddenly to declare the situation an unfortunate misunderstanding and claim never to have terminated Mitchell's employment.

But last year, William Wei, the director of Mitchell's program and one of his supporters, was replaced by Ann Carlos, who soon after accused Mitchell of various procedural violations, plagued him with poor performance evaluations, and ultimately terminated his position.

The AAUP report alleges that Carlos, who did not return WORLD's request for comment, "made numerous representations of fact that are contradicted by the verifiable record and thus committed serious acts of unprofessional conduct in pursuing the termination of Phil Mitchell."

Mitchell also suspects that Peter Boag, Zeiler's successor as history department chair, played a role in his termination. Boag is an outspoken advocate for gay rights and may have orchestrated the history department's attempt to cast Mitchell as homophobic. According to the AAUP report, department representatives contacted one of Mitchell's former teaching assistants to pick his memory over whether Mitchell had ever made anti-gay comments.

Boag did not respond to WORLD's inquiry. But Zeiler defended the actions of CU in removing Mitchell: "He's been treated fairly. The university followed the process they have for terminating somebody." Zeiler added that any previous issues he'd had with Mitchell fell under the category of procedural problems and were not ideological in nature.

That said, Zeiler admitted that public universities in general maintain "a liberal leaning." But he flatly denied the notion that CU was a far-left campus, attributing any such national reputation to the former presence of Ward Churchill, a radical political activist fired from the university in July.


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