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Dr. Mike Adams glanced around the federal courtroom, taking in the players for the biggest showdown of his career.
There sat a team from the University of North Carolina-Wilmington (UNCW), his employer for the last 21 years. Adams, 49, knew the school’s opponents well: representatives from Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) and the American Center for Law & Justice (ACLJ). As a liberal atheist, he had spent years bemoaning the organizations’ existence.
Except now, everything was backward. ADF Litigation Staff Counsel Travis Barham and ACLJ Senior Counsel David French were in Judge Malcolm Howard’s courtroom to defend Adams. And attorneys from UNCW were present to argue that Adams’ unexpected conversion from atheism to Christianity—and his accompanying change of political views—had nothing to do with the school denying him full professorship in 2006.
“I used to curse at (ADF and the ACLJ),” Adams admits. “And then those were the two organizations that represented me at trial. If you would have told me that years ago, I’d be in total disbelief.”
In fact, Adams had been in total disbelief for decades—most notably about the God he now refused to deny, no matter the professional cost.
Driven by Anger
Suspicion of the divine snaked through Adams’ brain early on, despite his Baptist upbringing. Raised by a Bible-believing mom and an atheist dad, the Texas youngster spent Sundays in church and even got baptized. But as he grew, his love for soccer and girls quickly eclipsed any fondness for his mother’s church.
Or, for that matter, school. While his on-field work ethic helped his Houston team win the 5A state soccer championship, it flopped in the classroom: Adams flunked every year of high school English, barely graduating with a 1.8 GPA.
“I had this goal that I was just going to skip college and play soccer. But instead I had an injury my senior year,” he tells Citizen. “So I was incredibly angry when I went off to college, because I didn’t really want to be there.”
A psychology professor at San Jacinto College, where Adams earned an associate’s degree, steered that rage toward the philosophies of Freud and Skinner. Adams “soaked it all in,” and before long proclaimed himself an agnostic, and then later an atheist—decisions he today admits were driven less by intellect, more by anger.
Still, he earned a 3.4 GPA while working toward his bachelor’s at Mississippi State University. Next came his master’s in psychology and doctorate in sociology and criminology, also from MSU. Yet Adams’ religious tenets—or lack of—were “born out of an exceptional level of anger,” he says, “later on solidified by my conduct.”
That conduct included a mad dash of drugs, moonlighting as a rock guitarist and more than a few women. Whatever Adams was doing, he went for broke. UNCW noticed that determination and hired him for its criminal justice program in 1993.
Adams was 28, a die-hard Democrat and a firm believer in himself. Before long, he amassed a dedicated student following. (“NEVER miss a class!” advised one online student review.) He, in turn, thrived with an audience of mostly teens and twenty-somethings.
It was outside the classroom and thousands of miles away from Wilmington, however, that another set of teens and twenty-somethings would change his life.
In 1996, Adams planed and bused his way to a prison just outside Quito, Ecuador, having landed a visiting professorship as part of a social justice mission with plans to interview inmates and guards.
Once inside, Adams met acquitted men who still lived as prisoners because their families couldn’t raise enough cash for their so-called processing fees. He stepped through the stink of too many unbathed bodies and rotten food.
And he watched a teenage boy—someone who could have been his student if he’d been born in America—get beaten.
The music-loving professor had a good ear for sound. But he had never heard anything like bones breaking from punch after kick after jab. Someone spotted Adams and yelled, “Tenemos visitas, pare!” (“We have visitors, stop!”) The teen’s attackers did just that. And as they carried him off, shaking, the boy raised his brown eyes to the foreigner in unspoken thanks.
Paralyzed outside the prison yard, he gazed at a far-away, worn-down statue of the Virgin Mary. Finally, something inside him broke, and his lips said aloud what his spirit was screaming: “I was wrong!”
“There was no way I expected to react that strongly. I was only in there for three hours,” Adams says. “I don’t want people to think I did that for effect. That’s not for effect. I was really emotionally shaken up.”
To Prison Again—and Freedom
For the next four years, Adams floated between his long-forgotten Christianity and established university life. After all, how could he simply waltz into a church and resume his relationship with God?
It took another three-hour prison visit to force his hand, this time in Texas with death row inmate John Paul Penry. Adams had been lecturing for years on Penry, a convicted rapist and murderer with an IQ of about 50.
Unexpectedly, Adams’ carefully constructed world of academic theory and liberal culture began to tremble. It morphed into a full-out quake when he met a prisoner who had been waiting two years for a trial that would have sentenced him to only two months if he was convicted. Yet the young man—a father of two, including one he had never seen—exuded a peace that befuddled Adams. Until, that is, the professor noticed the well-worn Bible and pictures of a crucified Jesus around the inmate’s bunk.
The young father thanked him for visiting, saying he had faith that everything would turn out well. Adams didn’t have that same conviction. In fact, he knew without a doubt that the man whose name he never caught was happier than Adams was himself.
What most struck Adams was not that the mentally challenged Penry had learned to read in prison, but what he read in its entirety: the Bible. The doomed man could even quote from the New Testament, unlike Adams.
Curious, Adams slunk into a local bookstore to buy a Bible. He began reading that night and consistently thereafter, not realizing he had purchased a King James Version. “I got bored to death,” he says. “It was driving me nuts.” So back to the bookstore he went, devouring Christian apologetics and reference books as well as writings from C.S. Lewis and Chuck Colson. “For the next nine or 10 months,” Adams explains, “I did a very calculated, calm examination of things.” His conclusion: Jesus Christ is an active, powerful presence in our lives. The former atheist again found himself in a church pew—but this time loving it.
Not everyone felt the same, however. When he mentioned his church attendance to a department secretary, her jaw dropped and the secret was out. (“Telling a secretary,” he deadpans, “is the same thing as announcing it to the world.”)
No matter, he thought.
Since his trip to Ecuador, the teaching awards had piled up: He had been named to “Who’s Who Among College Teachers” twice, received a special teaching stipend from the North Carolina Legislature, a nomination for the Chancellor’s Teaching Award, a promotion to associate professor, and the “Outstanding Professor” and “Faculty Member of the Year” awards at UNCW. Plus, there were the consistently high praises from end-of-semester student reviews.
So when Adams applied for full professorship in 2006, he was not particularly anxious. Though he had “come out” as a conservative in writings, lectures and columns (most notably as a regular contributor to townhall.com), who cared? He also had published 11 peer-reviewed scholarly works and his first book (an essay collection entitled Welcome to the Ivory Tower of Babel: Confessions of a Conservative College Professor (Harbor House, 2004). He had many academic accolades and had watched other professors with similar resumes advance.
“Beforehand, there was great enthusiasm for my teaching. You heard comments like, ‘We’ve got to put you up for the Board of Governor’s award,’ ” Adams says. “That dropped off after my conversion to ‘well, he’s just someone we’ve got to put up with.’ ”
The Fight Begins
In 2005, an interim sociology and criminology chair at UNCW said in a faculty evaluation that Adams’ research performance suffered because of his “political activities.” When the university denied Adams the full professorship in 2006, it did so using “a made-up promotion standard that contradicted the faculty handbook, passed along false information about his academic record, deceptively edited documents to influence the faculty vote, explicitly discussed his constitutionally protected viewpoint and allowed a faculty member with an obvious and outrageous conflict of interest to cast a vote against him,” says French, the ACLJ’s lead counsel.
Adams took action, hiring attorneys from ADF and the ACLJ, the organizations he once loathed. ADF filed a lawsuit in 2007 contending that “the university denied Adams a promotion because his nationally syndicated opinion columns espoused religious and political views that ran contrary to the opinions held by university officials.”
Judge Howard initially ruled in UNCW’s favor in 2009, citing the U.S. Supreme Court’s divisive ruling in Garcetti v. Ceballos, which limits public employees’ right to protected speech.
“We thought that was fundamentally wrong,” Barham tells Citizen. “Professors are paid to think and write, and we want them to do that without threat of being punished.”
Thankfully, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed. In 2011, it rejected UNCW’s request for an outright dismissal of Adam’s case and reversed Howard’s ruling, saying the precedent had been applied incorrectly: “(O)ur long-standing recognition (is) that no individual loses his ability to speak as a private citizen by virtue of public employment,” the justices wrote.
In other words, when Adams included writings and public appearances in his tenure-application package, the school could not punish him for his viewpoints. Furthermore, the 4th Circuit granted the professor the right to present his case to a jury of his peers. It was a substantial victory.
But Adams, still working at UNCW, wondered when and how it would end.
“There was a certain point where I was overwhelmed,” he says. “There were so many things going on, so much noise, I’d have to say, ‘I can’t do this!’ That’s when you fall to your knees and turn it over to prayer.”
Finally, seven years after the case began, Adams and his attorneys waited to hear the federal court’s ruling. He listened with a pounding heart as the verdict was announced: UNCW had indeed violated his free-speech rights, with his conservative expression a “substantial or motivating factor” in denying him the full professorship—even though his speeches and columns were not part of his official school duties.
That was this spring, on March 20. On April 8, the court ruled that UNCW must promote Adams, in addition to giving him $50,000 in back pay. And in early June, it ordered the school to pay more than $700,000 in attorneys’ fees.
“It was just an incredible sense of relief,” Adams admits.
Not to mention an incredible triumph—what “may well be the first of its kind,” as French points out—for teachers with contrary-to-the-establishment views.
Though UNCW was again appealing the case at press time, “Dr. Adams has reminded universities that it’s no longer open season on Christian and conservative professors,” says Barham. “It’s a warning that they need to treat them fairly and not penalize them for their views—to judge them fairly on their merit.”
Furthermore, the outcome of Adams v. Board of Trustees of the University of North Carolina-Wilmington is “a reminder to Christians that we have rights, which we must be willing to defend,” Barham says. “God still works through our legal system and still blesses those who take a stand for Him.”
Two weeks after the momentous decision, Adams attended an event in Raleigh, where an elderly man spoke with him afterward. “The Lord has been preparing you, raising you up to (win this case) since you were a little boy,” he declared.
In a life marked by the implausible, that is definitely something Mike Adams can believe in.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Find out more about the Alliance Defending Freedom at TellAdf.org and the American Center for Law and Justice at aclj.org. To learn more about Garcetti v. Ceballos, visit http://bit.ly/1qiJRl6. To read the final court decision in Adams v. University of Board of Trustees of the University of North Carolina-Wilmington, visit http://bit.ly/1nusYn7.
Crystal Kupper is a freelance journalist living in Great Britain.