In 1993, Dr. Mike Adams, a self-declared atheist and liberal, began working at the University of North Carolina-Wilmington (UNCW). Initially, he was highly esteemed by both his students and peers. Dr. Adams won many honors, including two-time Professor of the Year, and he outpaced many of his fellow teachers in scholarly publications and awards for outstanding teaching and community service.
During a 1996 teaching exchange in Ecuador, Dr. Adams had an encounter at a prison with death-row inmates that had a life-changing spiritual effect on him. “I really began to see the absurdity of the relativistic worldview, and it lit a fire in me,” he said. After a few years of study and questions, Dr. Adams became a Christian. His new faith also significantly impacted his political views. In his free time, Dr. Adams began publishing online columns that addressed cultural and political issues from a conservative perspective and that critiqued higher education.
Dr. Adams’s co-workers didn’t take too kindly to his new found Christian faith and worldview. They began acting hostile towards him, calling him a liar and mean-spirited, gave him poor evaluations, and even launched a secret investigation against him.
In 2006, Dr. Adams applied for promotion to full professor. In his application, he mentioned that he also wrote online columns. Even with his admirable professional achievements, his promotion was not inevitable. The news came; Dr. Adams was denied his rightly deserved promotion.
He immediately knew what to do:
“Five days after the denial of promotion, I got the letter explaining why I was denied, saying I was deficient in all areas—teaching, research, and service. I was sitting in my office with a service award to my left, UNCW Professor of the Year 1998 in front of me, and UNCW Professor of the Year 2000 to my right. It was very easy for me to pick-up the phone and call Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) and move forward with my lawsuit.”
After ADF filed a lawsuit on behalf of Dr. Adams against UNCW in 2007, the district court ruled in UNCW’s favor, saying Dr. Adams’s columns in an online publication were not protected by the First Amendment because they were mentioned in his promotion application.
Alliance Defending Freedom appealed the decision to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, which ultimately reversed the decision and sent it back to the district court. In March 2014, after a four-day trial, a federal jury ruled that UNCW violated Dr. Adams’s First Amendment rights.
After the verdict, the court ordered UNCW to promote Dr. Adams to full professor and pay him $50,000 in back pay. UNCW initially appealed the case, but later settled the case, agreeing to drop the appeal, to adopt procedures to protect Dr. Adams from renewed retaliation, and to pay his attorneys’ fees.
When asked how he sees this win having an impact on Christians at other universities, Dr. Adams said, “First of all, it shows that professors can speak out on issues of public concern, and integrate that within their work as professors, and not be punished for their viewpoint. But also, it shows that a conservative can stand up and fight—with ADF—and that there is a chance. David can face Goliath and prevail.”