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Geography, Dr. Michael Doran often explains, is important because it explains not only where something is but why it is where it is.
At the start of this fall's semester at the main campus of the University of Houston, students struggled to get an explanation on why something -- their geography class under Doran -- wasn't where it was supposed to be.
After waiting 30 minutes for the arrival of their teacher, one of the estimated 80 students called the dean's office. Finally, a member of the university's economic department showed up to explain: In the apparent fallout from a student-led campaign to add a geography degree program, UH had fired the charismatic adjunct professor. Another course and another teacher would be found for them, the administration representative informed students.
However, Doran and UH will be meeting again soon, in a federal courtroom instead of a campus classroom. The teacher last week filed a civil rights suit accusing the university of revenge because he'd helped activist students campaign hard for a geography major.
"Retaliation against adjunct professors is so common," Doran says. "But I made a choice: It's time to show the flag."
The era of calm -- some say outright lethargy -- on college campuses makes it even harder to believe that students would stir themselves into rebellious crusade over a subject as seemingly benign as geography. Doran's students argue convincingly that it proves just how effective Doran is in motivating those who take his courses.
It is understandable that Doran would treat students as family -- his father was a geography professor at Texas A&M. He got his undergraduate degree there, then received his doctorate at the University of Oregon. Financial concerns steered him from a career as a teacher in the '70s into the ranks of literary agents. Doran was successful, although the high-stress job -- and "having to read ghastly scripts and books" -- led to his retirement in 1993 at age 46.
International travel and reading academic journals kept him tuned in to the world of geography. As a hobby of sorts, Doran began teaching a night class at San Jacinto College. When UH asked him to become an instructor at its main campus in 1995, Doran jumped at the chance.
With financial stability and no career obligations, Doran quickly gained a reputation as a riveting lecturer who could rely on extensive slide and movie presentations to make his points. Those who took his classes called him dynamic as well as academically demanding.
"He made geography come alive," says student Bill Funderburke. "He was able to put it in terms applicable to everyday life. He was always thoroughly prepared, and well versed on his subject."
The adjunct professor also became known as a teacher always ready to offer advice and counsel for those in his classes. "He genuinely cares about his students," Funderburke says. "You could walk into his office, and his door was always open."
Doran began expanding the course offerings in geography. He waived his salary for teaching some classes and even assembled a popular summer field research program in Grenada. In its debut in 1999, five of six undergrads who participated had the unusual feat of getting published in recognized geographic journals.
His success, however, was bittersweet. Under Doran, enrollment increased. But some of the students most motivated by Doran changed their major to geography -- which meant they had to transfer to outside universities that offered it as a degree program. Funderburke was surprised to learn that despite the hours of study available at UH, the main campus didn't even offer the subject as a minor.
"I remember thinking, 'Doesn't this amount to theft?' " Funderburke says. He's a sophomore but -- returning to school at age 42 for a degree -- hardly a young radical. "The school's taking our money, but they're not going to reward us for the hours."
Frustrations escalated into the creation last year of the outwardly innocuous campus Geography Club, a group dedicated to getting geography revived as a major at UH. Doran, as faculty adviser, was soon caught up in the fray. W. Andrew Achenbaum, dean of the liberal arts and social sciences college, met with the adjunct professor for several sessions in mid-2000, in which he called for patience, saying the issue would be studied.
Over the next several months, the geography activists got the Student Government Association to pass a resolution calling for the major. They launched a petition drive and even a Web site to press their position that a degree program was warranted.
After the administration appeared to ignore the resolution and requests, the stakes went up. At the UH Board of Regents meeting last February, the crusaders made their case. But when the presentation was over, according to Funderburke, something shocking happened when UH Provost Edward Sheridan fielded questions from regents.
"Dr. Sheridan stood up and said student enrollment [for geography] was down. He was lying," Funderburke says. In a March 6 letter to The Daily Cougar, student Christopher Thompson accused Sheridan of falsifying statistics on geography enrollment.
By March 23 the administration seemed to have had enough of the insurrection. Achenbaum called Doran into his office and told him his contract for the fall would not be renewed. Doran remembers asking why.