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.
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.
Mitchell remains hopeful that the involvement of the AAUP, which also defended Ward Churchill's academic freedom, will add legitimacy to his claims of bias among his more liberal colleagues. But, so far, reaction to the AAUP report remains mild, disappointing Eron: "We hope this is just a slow emerging story that eventually will get a little more traction. We're proud of our report, and we think we've done the right thing."
Not content to wait around for such traction to develop, Mitchell has landed a teaching position at Colorado Christian University in Denver. CCU president William Armstrong rushed to hire Mitchell on the recommendation of his longtime friend Hank Brown, the president of CU. Brown, who plans to retire in February, cited university procedure in not intervening in Mitchell's case, and instead helped him find employment elsewhere.
"It was Hank's way of trying to solve the problem," Mitchell said. "He recommended me as an outstanding professor to an old friend of his, while his underlings are now saying I'm totally incompetent. Apparently, Hank doesn't believe what his own administrators say."
The University of Colorado is not the only area college with a recent personnel controversy on its hands. In May, Colorado Christian University in Denver dismissed popular global studies professor Andrew Paquin for failing to align with new president William Armstrong's politically conservative vision for the school.
Paquin, whom CCU students had recently selected faculty member of the year, assigned such politically liberal texts as God's Politics by Jim Wallis and One World by Peter Singer, a Princeton professor and ethicist who advocates infanticide as a means of social improvement. Both readings question the virtue of free markets and promote government-orchestrated redistribution of wealth.
Paquin defends such economic positions as promoting "a very Christian ethic" and says his students were "never assigned a book and told to believe it as gospel." He readily denounces Singer's anti-biblical willingness to kill infants and unborn babies.
Armstrong, a conservative Republican and former U.S. congressman and senator hired at CCU last year, declined to comment on Paquin's case but told WORLD he would not apologize for the university's new direction: "We're very interested in impacting our culture in support of traditional values, the sanctity of life, a biblical understanding of human nature, and as a result of that, a preference for limited government rather than expansive government, which we see as a threat to freedom."
Armstrong, who has served on the board of Campus Crusade for Christ for the past 15 years, is equally committed to conservative theology, requiring that all faculty and staff ascribe to a statement of faith from the National Association of Evangelicals. CCU maintains no political statement of faith, but Armstrong aims to be clear about university objectives for the sake of "truth in packaging."
"There are few, if any, colleges or universities in America that would wish to be as explicit about what we believe over such a broad range of spiritual and cultural principles," he said. "We're strong in favor of free markets, rather than regimented markets, because free markets lead not only to economic prosperity but human freedom, whereas regimented markets lead to economic stagnation and human misery."