“We are tired, our alumni are tired, our students are tired. Enough is enough.”
These are two resounding sentences from the roughly four-page letter to UNCW’s chancellor, Dr. Jose V. Sartarelli, addressing recent comments from Professor Mike Adams (of the sociology and criminology department) as “racist, stereotypical, discriminative, and derogatory.” Composed by a collective of UNCW alums Nick Pianovich, Shay Webb, Fairly Lloyd, Manuel Matute and current student Alexandria Payton, and signed “with Seahawk pride and disdain” by more than 140 current and former student leaders (representing just as many majors, organizations and interests), the letter is part of an orchestrated campaign calling for Adams’ removal.
Among those efforts is the Facebook group Justice and Equality for UNCW, which officially launched on June 4 and has grown to 7.6k members. Its intent is to put pressure on the university to dismiss Adams. A network of almost 270 criminology professors and graduate students released an open letter calling for Adams’ dismissal on Monday, June 15. An on-campus protest was held in the rain on Monday. Several UNCW departments have openly condemned Adams and the university’s inaction, including Adams’ own department.
This is not the first time the professor has come under fire for making inappropriate and insensitive remarks in the classroom and online. In 2007 he won a lawsuit against the university when he claimed he was denied a promotion because of his outspoken political views. He won based on his violation of First Amendment rights. UNCW settled the case to the tune of a little less than $700,000 in fees and back pay in 2014 after an unsuccessful appeal.
In September 2016, Adams published an article titled “A ‘Queer Muslim’ Jihad” on the conservative website The Daily Wire. He mentioned a UNCW student by name and accused her of plotting a “queer Muslim jihad.” Thousands cried harassment, and a petition circulated calling for Adams’ removal. The university again claimed he was protected by the First Amendment, and the student left UNCW.
The most recent outrage was sparked by a racially charged tweet Adams posted on May 29 among the pandemic shutdown and civil unrest circulating our nation:
“This evening I ate pizza and drank beer with six guys at a six seat table top [sic]. I almost felt like a free man who was not living in the slave state of North Carolina. Massa Cooper, let my people go!”
The aforementioned letter to the chancellor demanding action this time around follows a meeting between black student organizations (UNCW’s Black Student Union, Black Women’s Association, Black Boy Joy, NPHC) with Chancellor Sartarelli on June 11. In the meeting, black student leaders like BSU President Christopher Neal addressed the chancellor directly on how to improve the experience of black students and to move forward as a united community.
“They asked him, and the university, to stand in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement,” 2020 alum Mannie Matute recounts. “Chancellor Sartarelli responded with, ‘If you are asking me tomorrow to start painting and decorating the University with Black Lives Matter, that’s going to be very difficult because I believe All Lives Matter.’”
“It is this type of rhetoric that further proves the institutions disregard for the black community,” Matute adds.
This latest development quickly has led to more scrutiny and disappointment in administrative leadership and its handling of the Mike Adams’ controversial tenure, as well as the university’s perceived racial biases. Alex Payton is a junior, double majoring in public health and Spanish, and serves as president of the Black Women’s Association. She is one of the hundreds of students who have criticized the chancellor for his tepid email response to the UNCW community at large. She wants Chancellor Santarelli to understand his solidarity is most needed by black students, and by incoming and potential Seahawks.
“As a black woman and student at UNCW I know how it feels to be alienated, discriminated against and unwelcome,” she tells encore. “Chancellor Sartarelli emphasizes the importance of increasing retention and graduation rates but fails to realize these numbers will steadily decline if he does not implement a plan of action. . . . [Black students] are tired of being overlooked, and having our voices silenced to spare the white fragility of our predominantly white institution. If he really wants to promote diversity and inclusiveness, then he has to do the work where it counts: Show up and speak up for the black community. We are the ones hurting right now and are looking for support from our university that we are paying to attend.”
Dozens if not hundreds of individuals have posted to the Justice and Equality for UNCW Facebook page recounting disturbing interactions with Adams, often sharing their letters and emails to the chancellor. Most of these correspondences have been met with unsatisfactory responses. The page’s cofounder Justice Jones (name changed for anonymity) thinks this fight is no longer about evidence but rather is a numbers game.
“[UNCW has] forced us to be more expensive than [Adams] is,” she says. “We have asked scholarships to withdraw funding, and students to reconsider attending. . . . We’ll continue reaching out to more people, and get louder and louder until they realize we aren’t stopping this time.”
Jones says it’s a different time now for social justice and real change. People are ready to see this through until Adams resigns or is dismissed. Jones says the group will continue to work with various students and alumnae to see UNCW enforces policies they have in place, as well as help establish additional policies aimed at creating a safe and diverse campus.
“People are tired of the racist, misogynistic culture we have been living in,” she continues. “We know we are going to win this fight, and this is going to establish that UNCW has to hold itself to a higher standard, or we, the people, will make them.”
Students like Payton are hopeful this time around, too, because history shows persistence is key to achieving change. She and her peers don’t view previous attempts to remove Adams as defeat but as fuel for the fight ahead.
“Civil rights activists did not give up after one march,” she notes. “We have support systems that are more than willing to speak up for us, which means we are going to do everything we can to exhaust all resources to seek what we want.”
The spotlight on the professor has begun to travel to national news headlines. In the last two weeks, coverage has been seen on CNN and USA Today and even has reached the attention of celebrities from the locally filmed teen drama “One Tree Hill” and Orlando Jones, who filmed “Sleepy Hollow” in Wilmington.
High-profile coverage aside, the crux of all efforts is the question how Adams’ conduct (whether in the classroom or online) falls in line with UNCW’s own Seahawk Respect Compact. Fairley Lloyd graduated in May with her BFA in creative writing. She cites the Compact, as well as the university’s anti-harassment policies and core values in diversity and inclusion, in her own letter to the chancellor.
“By having people like Adams employed at their institution they are completely disregarding their core values,” she says. “No matter how many statements they make, if they keep people like Adams in the name of free speech, they are inevitably endorsing his behavior.”
Adams’ fate at UNCW aside, this movement raises questions about roles and expectations of professors—namely, how much protection tenure should offer, and what standards and codes of conduct they should be held to, both in and out of the classroom.
“We are often told in school by mentors and potential employers you have to conduct yourself professionally at all times, not just at school or work but on your social media presence,” Lloyd offers. “Some people have been fired or not given a job based on inappropriate content they’ve posted on their private social media.”
Adams’ maintained role at UNCW also ties into a larger, ongoing conversation about privilege. While some folks might see Adams as a victim of the “PC Police” and defend his words as freedom of speech, it is hard to argue his position as a white male doesn’t afford him safety nets unavailable to others.
“Mike Adams is not a victim in any way, shape or form,” Payton clarifies. “If we want to talk about victims, let’s discuss all of the black men, women, and children whose lives were unjustly taken because of white violence and police brutality. If we want to talk about victims, let’s talk about the centuries of systemic and systematic racism built and implemented to keep my ancestors, myself, and future generations enslaved to the system. His victim mentality is an example of white fragility. Mike Adams is not a victim of anything.”
Neither Mike Adams nor Chancellor Sartarelli responded to encore’s requests for interviews.