Stefan Veldhuis, a devoutly Christian single father of two and a popular adjunct professor of political science at Chaffey College (a two-year public institution in Southern California), received an unexpected phone call on Nov. 27. He was dismissed, as of that moment, with less than a month left in the semester. No reason was given for his termination. His institutional email account was cut off immediately; he was not allowed back on the property. He has no way of contacting the students he has been working with for over two months—not to say goodbye, not even to update them on their grades.
The bare-bones version of the story of Veldhuis’ dismissal, as first reported in Inside Higher Ed, goes like this: This spring, Veldhuis filed a complaint about another employee to Chaffey human resources, accusing her of engaging in sexual acts with a former staff member on campus (including in a classroom). (Veldhuis told me his strict moral code led him to file the report, though it’s worth noting he had personal reasons to be upset at the employee as well.) Nothing resulted from his complaint, but several months later, Chaffey investigated whether Veldhuis had had a sexual relationship with a former student named Erin Burson.
Burson, who in emails readily acknowledges a platonic friendship with Veldhuis based on their attendance at the same evangelical church, complained about the investigation to HR, and an appointment was made for her to appear in person at Chaffey to clear both her name and Veldhuis’. The administration canceled their meeting hours before she was supposed to come in on Nov. 27—and the same day, Veldhuis was axed. (The head of HR at Chaffey did not respond to several requests for comment.)
The details of the accusations and counteraccusations are confusing, and it’s not at all clear what the whole story is. Which is kind of the point. What matters is that Veldhuis’ dismissal happened absent any official institutional proceedings brought against him and emphasizes a grim truth about higher education in the United States.
You might think that university professors, with their precious tenure, are difficult to fire—but of course, most professors are untenured, so in reality, it is extraordinarily easy to dismiss the vast majority of U.S. college instructors, without warning, without severance, and without recourse to due process. The saga of Stefan Veldhuis points out how tenuous the livelihood of adjunct professors really is—no matter how good they are, or how much their students love them, it’s often easier to dump adjuncts (even midsemester) than it is to address their issues fairly.
Now, Veldhuis says, with his primary source of income gone, he’s down to the two remaining courses he teaches at another school (like many adjuncts, he normally juggles five courses per semester at different institutions to cobble together solvency). He is receiving assistance from his church and applying for unemployment benefits; he hopes he and his children won’t be “homeless for Christmas.”
What does Veldhuis’ dismissal have to bear on the rest of our country’s higher education culture? Plenty. Again, no charges of any sort were filed against Veldhuis. He received no reprimand, was invited to no hearing. It’s hard to imagine that it was truly necessary for Chaffey to can him in the middle of the semester. And yet, because he was an adjunct, they could, and they did. That should send a chill down the already-frigid spine of every nontenured faculty member in America—and the people who depend on them for food and shelter.
When Americans think of college professors, they often think of people who can’t be fired even if they deserve it. But this could not be further from the truth. More than 75 percent of college instructors in the United States work off the tenure track, and most of these “contingent” employees are adjuncts on semester-long contracts like Veldhuis. (And like me.) The vast majority of adjuncts are “at-will” workers, with no organization to represent them. Their contracts do not afford them due process, even if they are accused of something absurd.
So what? American employees get fired and escorted out by security all the time. Welcome to the real world, intellectuals. But perhaps we forget that even though today most professors never have a chance of making tenure, tenure was invented with the best possible intentions: to protect the intellectual freedom of academics so that they couldn’t get fired just for disagreeing with the university president, or the actual president, or even committing—or not committing—some sexual indiscretion.
That’s not an idle concern, because these days untenured professors can get canned for any old reason—and they are. They’re fired when their twerpy little Tea Party students post misleadingly edited videos to Breitbart; or when they complain about the administration’s placement of religious symbols on a public university building; or when they hurt the feelings of a cheater; or when they talk frankly about gun violence. Veldhuis’ case is particularly egregious, because he was fired while his classes were still in session. We cannot let this become a trend: Losing a professor midcourse disrupts students’ learning process—and, no small matter with today’s letter-obsessed kiddies, it jeopardizes their grades.
You think tenure’s a relic and want to do away with it? Fine. That’s happening already, faster than you can even know. But terminating professors midsemester with no reason and no due process is abhorrent, and there must be protections in place—yes, from a union or adjunct faculty association, someone who will advocate on behalf of the contingent. Every worker, every human, deserves humane working conditions and a stated reason for abrupt termination. Someone has to fight on behalf of Stefan Veldhuis, and every other adjunct in the line of fire.