Last Monday, June 1, Michael “Mick” Parsons was called into a meeting. At the time an adjunct professor at Jefferson Community and Technical College and a leading activist for expanding adjuncts’ rights on campus, Parsons believed he was being invited to discuss budgetary issues with top JCTC officials, including Dean of Academic Affairs Randall Davis, Human Resources Director Toni Whalen, and Provost Diane Calhoun-French. It was an hour before his next class.
The budget wasn’t on the agenda, however. Instead, Parsons lost his job, and not only from JCTC. He says he was also banned from working at any school within the statewide Kentucky Community and Technical College System (KCTCS). “Which is unheard of,” he says.
Parsons says the administrators told him he was being fired because he had posted about a student on his Facebook page, in violation of the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act. FERPA rules generally address and prohibit the improper disclosure of personally identifiable information about students derived from education records.
But Parsons contends he was terminated for his high-profile efforts as an activist, working to improve conditions for adjunct professors.
“My response to this event is that I plan (on) taking action on multiple levels, legal and public,” he wrote on his blog on June 3. “The excuse is flimsy, and I have no doubt that action taken against me is retaliatory. I’ve already begun the process of exploring possible appeals … because this attempt to silence me is not really about me at all.”
In an interview with IL, Parsons added: “It’s a national trend … adjunct activists are rooted out of systems in states that are right-to-work states, or employment at-will states.” Kentucky is the latter.
The decision to remove Parsons came from the KCTCS human resources office, according to Lisa Brosky, vice president of advancement at JCTC. The school is a part of the KCTCS system.
Kristi Middleton, a spokeswoman for KCTCS, says Parsons was an at-will employee with KCTCS, working under a one-semester, fixed-term contract. “Following his current contract, his position was not renewed for another term,” she wrote via email. She declined to elaborate and would not confirm Parsons was banned from the KCTCS system.
Brosky also would not comment directly on the nature of Parsons’ termination, although she confirmed his contract was not renewed.
Parsons challenges the assertion that he violated FERPA. He says the Facebook post that allegedly led to his termination read: “Dear ADA accommodated student: basic citation format cannot be overlooked because you are vision impaired. Neither can spell check.”
“I did not mention the student’s name, I did not mention the student’s grade,” Parsons says. “I just pointed out that this particular student, who also has an (American with Disabilities Act) issue, uses that issue to not follow instructions.”
Instead, Parsons says he was fired because he has advocated for better employment conditions for adjunct professors at JCTC and other colleges and universities. And his sudden dismissal is a case-in-point of the very issue he’s advocated for: greater employment protections for adjunct professors, on whom schools are increasingly relying as budgets tighten.
Parsons is an organizer in a nascent group called the Kentucky College Faculty Association, dedicated to promoting activism among Kentucky’s adjunct and part-time college instructors. He was a central organizer of the Feb. 25 “teach-ins” held at JCTC and the University of Louisville, where activists sought to raise awareness of the conditions under which adjunct professors work. The teach-ins were part of a national effort called “National Adjunct Walkout Day.” The local versions were high-profile enough to garner coverage in the The Atlantic, as well as a cover story in LEO Weekly, where Parsons was prominently featured.
Nationally, almost 59 percent of college instructional faculty are either graduate teaching assistants (12.2 percent) or part-time instructional staff (46.7 percent), according to the American Association of University Professors.
Most adjunct instructors have few of the rights of full-time faculty, such as health and retirement benefits or opportunity for tenure, and their pay is a fraction of what full-time professors earn. Parsons’ annual salary, for example, totaled close to $14,000 per year, he says; he earned $1,685 per class.
According to U of L spokesman Mark Hebert, 31 percent of the university’s student credit hours were taught by part-time faculty as of 2012. Brosky, of JCTC, says that school’s part-time faculty rate is 46 percent.
Parsons had taught English and English as a Second Language at JCTC since 2013. He was a co-chair of JCTC’s adjunct task force, through which he pushed for adjunct professors to get full voting rights and be defined as faculty.
“At the system level, we have no power and no representation in the Faculty Senate,” he says.
As if to illustrate the point, Parsons’ contract had to be renewed every semester, but neither he nor any other adjuncts there undergo regular reviews.
“Mr. Parsons, as with most contingent faculty, had a one-semester, at-will contract and in this instance, we elected not to continue that contract,” Brosky wrote in an email. “Per policy, we cannot discuss the details of that personnel matter. Ending a contract can happen for a number of reasons, including a class doesn’t fill, a class isn’t needed, and administrative matters.”
IL has filed a request under the Kentucky Open Records Act to attempt to obtain further information about his termination.
Brosky denies that Parsons was fired for his activism. However, it’s clear his advocacy — and that of other adjuncts — was effecting change. Brosky says recommendations from the adjunct task force are expected soon, including opportunities for professional development, more pay, and further employment. The hope is some of these proposals will be funded by the fall semester, she says.
Recently, an online petition was started to get Parsons reinstated within the KCTCS system. Parsons also filed a request with KCTCS under the Kentucky Open Records Act to try to obtain documents related to his termination. He is also considering legal options, he says, though he has not yet retained an attorney.
“All they had to say is they’re not renewing your contract, but they went the further step and made it so incredibly dramatic,” he says. “I really think they expected me to take my thumping and go away. Somebody misread me along the way.”