Last week, Robin Meade won a ruling by the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals, overturning a district court decision that had dismissed her lawsuit against Moraine Valley Community College in Palos Hills, Illinois.
By Robin Meade
The police chief handed me the envelope stating he had no idea what was in it, he was just the messenger. I took the envelope from him and opened it. I was stunned. Inside was a memo firing me.
I was fired for sending a letter to the League for Innovation in the Community College, criticizing the Moraine Valley Community College administration for treating adjunct faculty as a “disposable resource” and the “chilling effect” on adjuncts who lack job security.
A waterfall of thoughts washed over me. Classes had started earlier that week. I had already connected with them. Wait, I wrote that letter as the president of the adjunct union. How could they fire me for that? Wasn’t that illegal? I didn’t say anything untrue. The letter was based upon research with the membership and eyewitness accounts and approved by the MVAFO (adjunct union) board. What would happen to my students? How would I tell my kids? How would I make up the income from those classes? I spent the rest of the day trying to piece the future together.
I found very quickly that every course of action open to me required waiting… and meetings… and gathering information. The saying goes that freedom isn’t free. The unsaid (but not always understood) other part of freedom is that keeping it requires more than latency. We shouldn’t relax because we have freedom. We should recognize daily the responsibility of keeping that freedom from eroding. The union filed an unfair labor practice and the waiting began for the labor board to rule. I pursued the First Amendment case on my own. The first hearing wasn’t until December, four months later.
Many people have asked me what this cost me. For starters, my job. The semester had started. I had already connected with my students. Many of them texted, asking what was going on. It wasn’t appropriate for them to be involved in this. The administration left them hanging with no instructor and no answers. Educators know and data supports that attendance the first two weeks of class are crucial for student success. How much more if the instructor is missing instead of the students? I was angry for them, angry at the flagrant disregard for their success by an administration claiming student success as its highest priority.
The message my termination sent to the adjuncts I represented was clear – speak out and we’ll fire you, even if you’re the president of the union. None of you are protected from anything. But it certainly wasn’t the first time the administration at Moraine had trampled free speech. In April 2013, during the board of trustee elections, the MVAFO had hung election fliers on the adjunct union boards in the adjunct working areas around campus. The administration sent the campus police to remove the election flyers off of the union boards. Adjuncts in these areas witnessing the action emailed and texted me, terrified for their jobs for just sitting in the adjunct area grading. I never imagined the administration would fire me for acting in my role as union president and be brazen enough to say so in my termination letter. Who does that? Are you sure we’re not in Ireland in the early 1900s?
My adjuncts weren’t sure. The first union meeting of the semester I attended via speaker phone. During the meeting, one of the members asked, “Who will be next to be fired?” I had been threatened with charges of criminal trespassing if I were to set foot on campus. The administrator who fired me stated that he didn’t understand how I could still hold my office, as if the administration and not an election and the MVAFO bylaws dictated this. My board members were threatened with termination if any of them helped me gain access to the union office on campus. The administrative bullying infuriated me and I wanted to come onto campus, but it was in the best interest of the union to have the leadership of the adjuncts strong and intact. I was determined to complete my term.
The school year was tough. But true leadership is persevering and leading regardless of outside circumstance. Despite the support of my board and the well wishes of the leaders of other adjunct unions, I felt very alone. There really are not enough supports for adjuncts. Adjuncts don’t have the time and are dependent on help from full-time faculty for classes and connections. Adjuncts at Moraine come and go, regardless of relationship, the cost of turnover ignored. Anyone could go next because it is understood that adjuncts are important only for cost savings and easily replaced. Many of my friends disappeared, wanting to distance themselves from the fallout on campus or from people who tired of hearing about my ongoing struggles. So I stopped talking to people and started praying and kept waiting to see what would happen in the court. I started writing again and began to look at other career possibilities outside of academia.
Some people say I was brave and some say I was stupid. I say that living in fear and ignoring the truth to stay safe isn’t freedom. Signing and sending that letter cost me my job, my reputation, and many friends and contacts. And given the choice, I would sign and send the letter again.