Firebrand conservative academic opts for early retirement in light of latest controversies and provocations
Combative, confrontational and litigious, UNC-Wilmington professor Mike Adams has long aggressively courted controversy, seeming to revel in contradictions. A career academic openly contemptuous of academia. A fierce critic of public higher education who makes his living teaching at a public university. A self-styled free speech warrior who threatens defamation lawsuits when criticized by colleagues.
Through all of it, Adams has managed to keep his job. Until this week.
Over his 27 years at UNCW, students, faculty and administrators say Adams has pushed — and often broken — the boundaries between free speech and harassment, politics and hate, academic freedom and academic responsibility. His critics say the criminology professor has built a career on columns for far-right conservative websites, vitriolic social media posts and speaking engagements in which he portrays white conservative Christians as harassed and oppressed by liberals and feminists in government and academia. His teaching extols racist, sexist, homophobic and Islamophobic views, they say, and is at odds with the values of the university and the UNC System.
Adams has been almost constantly at odds with the university that employs him, the colleagues with whom he teaches and the mainstream of his own academic discipline. But with support from conservative Christian organizations, fans and allies on the political right, he’s managed to come out on top of professional conflicts again and again.
In July of last year, Adams announced on his Facebook page that he’d just finished a regular post-tenure evaluation — the last before he planned to retire in five years. He said he believed this gave him even greater freedom and he intended to use it.
“This is going to be the most wide open five years of my career,” Adams wrote. “It is also going to be a very long painful five years for certain people in academia.”
Adams did his best to make good on that promise. But this week his retirement came earlier than he’d planned.
The tale of the tweet
Adams’ final chapter at UNCW began with a May 29 post on Twitter aimed at Gov. Roy Cooper’s executive orders to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
“This evening I ate pizza and drank beer with six guys at a six seat table top,” Adams wrote. “I almost felt like a free man who was not living in the slave state of North Carolina. Massa Cooper, let my people go!”
Adams’ critics say the post was a near-perfect distillation of the online persona Adams has long cultivated as a minor conservative celebrity. It took aim at a Democratic political figure. It equated being a white man following public health laws with living as a Black person under slavery. It even added a punch line in a mock-slave dialect, underlining and compounding the racial offense.
The tweet was hardly unique for Adams. He’s been a frequent and enthusiastic online provocateur since well before the age of Twitter, penning columns for conservative websites that have been denounced as offensive, divisive, even hateful. With the rise of social media, his fiery commentary became more frequent and reached a wider audience.
But this tweet came in the wake of the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police, which sparked international protests against police brutality and systemic racism. With students, faculty and school administrators more resolved than ever to tackle racism head-on, Adams’ comment led tens of thousands to sign petitions calling for his firing. On Twitter and Facebook, the UNCW community organized and rallied, while prominent alumni and celebrities applied pressure to the administration over Adams and vowed to withhold donations until he was gone.
Gary Shipman, a former member of the UNCW Board of Trustees, announced on Facebook he would be “suspending all financial support, and calling on others to do so, until that racist, bigoted and misogynistic piece of nothingness Mike Adams is gone.”
Members of Adams’ own Sociology and Criminology department issued a statement condemning him and questioning his fitness as a professor.
“We view his current and past statements that are steeped in racism, homophobia, Islamophobia, and sexism, as repugnant and not in keeping with the values of our department,” Adams’ colleagues wrote in the statement. “As educators, we deplore actions taken by any persons that only serve to denigrate and demean members of our communities.”
The university also condemned Adams’ comments, but said they were protected by the First Amendment.
“Hateful, hurtful language aimed at degrading others is contrary to our university values and our commitment to an environment of respect and dignity,” the university said in a statement. “Its appearance on any platform, including the personal platforms of anyone affiliated with UNCW, is absolutely reprehensible. However, no matter how upsetting and distasteful the comments may be, they are expressions of free speech and protected by the First Amendment.”
But in a last line in the statement, the university went further than it had previously in recent times when dealing with Adams.
“We stand firmly against these expressions of hatred, and the university is reviewing all options in terms of addressing the matter,” it read.
Shipman, the former UNCW trustee who is also an attorney, took to Facebook again to push back against the idea that Adams’ statements and behavior were all protected free speech. Shipman said he has previously represented tenured faculty members the university had tried to discipline or fire. Adams’ case is different, he said.
“No one of common intelligence could read Prof. Adams’s rants and ever believe them to be ‘protected speech,’” Shipman wrote. “His conduct has caused a substantial and material disruption to the operations of UNCW. Prof. Adams has substantially interfered with the protected free expression rights of others. Prof. Adams has ‘harassed’ and abused students and others who have dared to take issue with him. He has used the ‘authority’ of his position to endorse his ‘agenda.’ Prof. Adams has therefore crossed the line of any protections afforded to him under the Constitution. It’s time for Mike Adams to go.”
The issue ultimately made it to the UNC Board of Governors, whose University Governance Committee discussed Adams in a closed session last week and consulted with legal counsel.
Closed session meetings are confidential, but two governors familiar with the discussions described them to Policy Watch this week. Policy Watch agreed not to name the board members so they could describe closed session deliberations and private discussions between board members.
Adams’ behavior has over the years risen to a level that would qualify him for sanction or firing for “misconduct” — even as a tenured faculty member — under the UNC Policy Manual and Code, one board member said.
The code says such faculty members may be sanctioned or fired for:
Misconduct of such a nature as to indicate that the individual is unfit to continue as a member of the faculty, including violations of professional ethics, mistreatment of students or other employees, research misconduct, financial fraud, criminal, or other illegal, inappropriate or unethical conduct. To justify serious disciplinary action, such misconduct should be either (i) sufficiently related to a faculty member’s academic responsibilities as to disqualify the individual from effective performance of university duties, or (ii) sufficiently serious as to adversely reflect on the individual’s honesty, trustworthiness or fitness to be a faculty member.”
The board has traditionally preferred to leave campus-level matters like the disciplining of faculty to the individual campuses. But during the last year, in the face of a number of high-profile cases involving students, faculty, trustees and even its own members, the board has begun discussions about clearer lines on what is protected speech and what constitutes misconduct.
“In today’s age it’s a very sensitive topic and there’s not a real clear path on that,” said Board of Governors member Marty Kotis. “It’s something that deserves some solid discussion, weighing out the balance between freedom of speech and freedom of ideas and actions people take where we need to articulate why they can or can’t do them.”
The university ultimately handled the Adams issue at the local level.
This week, UNCW released a statement saying that after a meeting with Chancellor Jose Sartarelli, Adams had decided to retire effective Aug. 1.
On Thursday afternoon UNCW announced it had reached a settlement in which it paid Adams more than $500,000 to retire early. Chancellor Sarterelli said the deal was better than leaving Adams in place at the university or facing another costly legal fight with him.
“This resolution is less damaging to UNCW than leaving the situation unresolved,” Sarterelli wrote in a message to the UNCW community Thusday. “In addition to saving money, the settlement will prevent the continued disruption to our educational mission, reduce concerns around campus safety, and lessen the harm to the institution. Dollars are precious, but our institutional integrity is priceless.”
Policy Watch also reached out to Adams for comment. He has not responded. His Twitter account, usually a flurry of activity each day, has been silent since June 11.
A long history
Many who pushed for Adams’ ouster are celebrating this week. But not everyone is satisfied.
Samantha Santana, a 2017 UNCW alumna, is one of many who said the university shouldn’t have allowed Adams to quietly retire. He should have been fired for cause, she said.
“The movement called for Dr. Adams to be fired from his position, Santana said. “It’s #FireMikeAdams not #AllowMikeAdamsToRetireEarly.”
The outcome didn’t necessarily surprise her, she said, but it was disappointing.
“But I am not aware of the full legal implications that went on,” Santana said. “It could be this may have been UNCW’s only option without a wrongful termination lawsuit underway…who knows?”
Adams’ litigiousness has for years been a major concern for the administration and even his fellow colleagues.
In 2007, Adams sued the university, claiming he had been denied a promotion because of his religious and political beliefs. The legal fight lasted seven years, but with support from the conservative Christian nonprofit Alliance Defending Freedom, Adams eventually triumphed. In 2014, the university agreed not to appeal the most recent verdict in Adams’ favor, to promote him to full professor and pay him $50,000 in back-pay and $615,000 in related legal costs and fees.
After that, students and colleagues of Adams said, he seemed to consider himself untouchable. On social media and conservative websites he insulted the university, his colleagues and even students. He joked that his tenure meant he rarely had to come to work or put forth much effort. His syllabi referred to his annoyance at “government bureaucrats” forcing him to list “learning objectives” and “accreditation Nazis” trying to control the content of his courses.
And his work outside the university — as a columnist for online conservative publications — pushed the boundaries further.
In a high-profile example, Adams published a 2016 column about Nada Captor (who was also known at the time as Nada Merghani), a UNCW student who was questioned by the Secret Service after posting online “y’all are not prepared for what I’m about to do” in reference to her planned protest at an event by then-presidential candidate Donald Trump on the UNCW campus.
After an interview, the Secret Service determined she wasn’t making a threat. Adams seized on the event, writing a column that mocked Captor’s sexuality, religion and intelligence.
“I could have saved them the trouble and let them know there was no need to fear a terrorist attack from the confused teenager,” Adams wrote. “Her claims to be a ‘queer Muslim’ are probably part of an act designed to fit into as many victim categories as humanly possible. Sometime [sic] I wonder whether LGBT stands for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Thespian. So much drama, so few letters in the alphabet.”
“In my view, she simply lacks the intellectual coherence to form any sort of rational plan – including, but not limited to, killing a presidential candidate,” Adams wrote. “She comes across sort of like Squeaky Fromme minus the handgun and resolve.” Fromme was a member of the infamous Manson Family who, in 1975, attempted to assassinate President Gerald Ford.
In a recent Facebook post recalling what happened next, Captor said the column changed the course of her college career.
“His white supremacist fanbase BLEW UP all of my social media dms, my e-mail, even going so far as to call my parents workplaces threatening to murder me,” Captor wrote.
“Eventually I got sick and tired of always feeling scared for my life, angry, unheard and betrayed by administration, and constantly getting new calls from my mother making sure no one made an attempt on my life,” she wrote. “And I left UNCW, the student groups I loved, my job, my home, my everything and I moved to Charlotte.”
“I had to take years—*years*—to heal and get my head together after that,” Captor said. “I was just filled with so much hurt and anger that I felt like I could barely function… 2016 was unquestionably one of the worst years of my life and it took a very long time before I could finally process and accept what had happened.”
Adams’ colleagues in the Sociology and Criminology department condemned him for the episode. In response, Adams threatened to sue them for defamation.
Many of Adams’ colleagues at UNCW have been reluctant to go on the record with criticisms of him, beyond group statements. They cite both his legal threats and the enjoyment he seems to get from negative attention. Even this week, as they celebrated Adams’ departure from the university, several faculty members told Policy Watch they would prefer not to comment on (or engage with) him as it might result in being targeted in a future column, lawsuit or both.
But many members of the UNCW community pointed to what they say have been increasingly coarse and even threatening Twitter posts from Adams.
Social media posts that came across as racist or sexist were offensive, they said, but not necessarily anything new for Adams. But the pandemic — and government reaction to it — led to a series of darker tweets.
“All cultures are not equal,” Adams wrote on Twitter on March 24. “If you eat dogs and infect the world with viruses because your government lies and prosecutes those who tell the truth then your culture is evil. Multiculturalism is nonsense. Some cultures are inferior. That is the reason we liberated Auschwitz.”
“Use your check from the government to buy an AR-15 and some ammo,” he wrote on Twitter on March 25. “Be ready for the next overreach.”
On May 16, with the governor’s executive orders having closed many businesses during the COVID-19 pandemic, Adams published a series of Tweets calling on people to defy the orders using guns.
“If I owned a restaurant I would open immediately and require all of my employees to open carry,” he wrote in one tweet. “Give the governor something to think about before the next unlawful shut down order.”
“Apparently some folks have forgotten why the Framers penned the Second Amendment,” he wrote in another.
“When the government decides it can overthrow your business it is time to talk about overthrowing the government,” he wrote.
“America is finally imploding,” Adams concluded in a May 31 tweet. “And that is probably a good thing. I would rather live in a red state turned nation state than to share a common flag with California and Massachusetts. We’ve grown apart. It’s time to separate.”
In a June 1 Twitter post he went further.
“A second civil war is underway,” he wrote. “You either get that or you don’t.”
“This is not who we are”
The escalation of intensity in Adams’ social media posts led some colleagues, students and parents of students to question his fitness to teach.
“The fact that he’s been in a position where he’s influencing young people’s minds is repulsive to me,” said Carol Cortes Spratley, whose daughter Cassidy is a sophomore at UNCW. “He’s had all these years of influencing people…it really makes me sick to my stomach. I’m so glad he’s gone now and my daughter won’t ever have to take a class with him.”
The recent spotlight on Adams has Sociology and Criminology professors well beyond Wilmington questioning not just his judgment on social media but his teaching and scholarship.
“As sociologists and criminologists, we are concerned by the disconnect between his most recent language and the empirical research on race, racism, and the criminal justice system,” a group of Adams’ departmental colleagues wrote in a group statement earlier this month. “It is concerning to us that a person in a position to teach aspects of the criminal justice system, is not exposing systemic racism and inequalities, but rather is sustaining and reinforcing them. This is not what students deserve. This goes against the very fabric of decency, compassion, and community. This is not who we are.”
A group of 267 criminology professors and graduate students from across the country echoed that sentiment earlier this month by issuing their own statement and petition to the UNCW administration calling for Adams’ termination.
Dr. Denise Paquette Boots is associate dean of Undergraduate Education in the School of Economic, Political & Policy Sciences at the University of Texas at Dallas. She’s been following the Adams controversies and lent her name to the recent petition calling for his firing.
His retirement is welcome, she said this week, and was necessary to maintain UNCW’s integrity.
“Institutions of higher learning cannot say they unequivocally support equality, rights, and social justice for all while simultaneously allowing egregious behaviors of faculty who purposefully harass, demean, and attempt to intimidate women and people of color,” Boots said.” I stand united with my colleagues across the country who voiced serious concerns and demanded a call to action against the long-term abuses of Dr. Adams and in his promotion of a toxic learning and working environment for the faculty and students of UNCW.”
Dr. Kenneth Sebastian León, an assistant professor and faculty affiliate of the Criminal Justice Program at Rutgers University, also signed a petition calling for Adams’ dismissal.
And for reasons going beyond social media posts.
Adams’ online rhetoric was disturbing enough, León said. But a look at some of the syllabi for courses he recently taught at UNCW makes it clear Adams’ racial and political worldview made its way into the lecture hall.
The syllabus for Adams’ “Issues in Criminal Justice” course for the Spring 2020 semester veers well outside of anything that would be acceptable in such a course at most universities, León said.
“Some of it seems only tangentially relevant to actual criminal justice issues,” Leon said. “A lot of it is just shock jockey culture war stuff.”
In a section of the course titled “What was that you were saying about patriarchal oppression?” Adams wrote that he would focus on examples of sexism in the law toward men, not women.
“Feminist professors often talk about oppression,” Adams writes in the syllabus. “But you don’t see many of them boarding leaky boats and paddling their way toward Cuba in order to escape patriarchy and achieve gender equality. Women have it good in America. This is especially true of married women.”
“Here, we step back from theory and examine the reality of sexism and the law by taking a brief look at what routinely goes on in family court in America,” Adams wrote. “Specifically, we will examine what happens to men accused of crimes in the midst of divorce and custody proceedings. Students will be asked how common family law practices can possibly be squared with the constitution – particularly the 14th Amendment (Hint: They cannot)”
Other sections in the course examine:
- the way in which “white privilege,” an idea Adams says was popularized by domestic terrorists, is deployed to exclude white people’s points of view from the marketplace of ideas,
- the doubtful nature of an actual rape crisis on college campuses through the study of lawsuits against “universities that have apparently railroaded innocent students through campus rape tribunals,”
- the illogic of claims the U.S. criminal justice system is systematically racist, despite the existence of scientific studies on the issue (“Are these studies really scientific?” Adams writes. “Or are the studies themselves systematically rigged in order to produce a result that creates problems for tenured intellectuals to solve?”),
- what Adams calls “the major progressive theories of crime” (Adams writes that the important questions are “a) why these theories have been such a failure and b) why academics won’t admit it. I’ll answer them both.”), and
- how the media distorts the public’s view of crime and justice (the two examples: the murder of Matthew Sheppard and the Columbine Massacre, the coverage of which Adams calls “media malpractice.”)
“I don’t even know how he got a syllabus like this approved,” León said.
“Most academics who endure the tenure track gauntlet manage to succeed on the merits of their research, teaching, and service,” León said. “It is ironic that Professor Mike Adams had to sue his way up the promotion ladder of a system that favors people who look like him, while peddling comically shallow conservative ideological talking points to an audience that is largely hostile to the academic tenure system.”
Where Adams will go and what he will do in his retirement isn’t yet clear. But with frequent appearances on conservative talk shows, speaking gigs before conservative groups and regular columns on conservative websites, no one at UNCW expects it to be long before they hear from him again.
[Disclosure: As a student at UNC-Greensboro in 2004, Joe Killian wrote a column critical of Dr. Mike Adams after he attacked the school and its newspaper, of which Killian was then editor.]