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.
"This is merely an administrative decision," Achenbaum replied.
Doran says he could only shake his head at the nonresponse. "They think as long as they don't tell you what the reason is, they can fire you for no reason."
Administrators defend their position, saying common sense and fiscal responsibility run counter to the calls for a geography degree program.
The UH Clear Lake campus offers a major in geographic education. "It would be much wiser for [interested] students to transfer to Clear Lake where it's available. That's part of the idea of having the University of Houston System: For programs with small enrollments, you don't repeat them on each campus."
Funding needs to be directed at programs that attract the most students, Sheridan says. "In the social sciences we have some areas with tremendous enrollments, like psychology and economics -- they are tremendously in demand " It's very hard to find students who actually want to major in geography."
Activists say the number of geography students has increased by a third since Doran came to the university. They note that Clear Lake only offers a degree in geography education -- not cultural geography and geographic information systems, which are of primary interest. Students who need Doran's physical geography class for teaching requirements, they say, have two choices: transfer to Clear Lake or abandon their teaching hopes.
As for the nonrenewal of Doran's contract, Sheridan waves questions aside. While Doran quotes Achenbaum as saying it was an administrative matter, Sheridan calls it a departmental decision.
The teacher's wife, Pat, says there was no choice but to sue to stand up against what the couple clearly sees as retaliation. "If we don't do this, we're wrong," she says.
Doran himself views it as part of a much larger problem of universities exploiting the adjunct professor positions, which aren't protected with tenure. He says that nearly half of UH's teaching force is adjuncts, and that the university can prey on the surplus of doctorates and cheap salaries in that system. Because adjuncts are easily replaceable, faculty members can't afford to come into conflict with the university.
"It's a situation that nobody seems to know anything about. The people within the system are sharecroppers themselves, and they're scared to lose whatever they have," Doran says.
His suit, filed by attorney Blair Brininger, seeks lost earnings and unspecified punitive damages, as well as an injunction barring the university from further interference in the efforts to gain a geography major. He alleges that all the "harassment, retaliation, disciplinary actions and the termination" for his role with the student activists "were all done for the purpose of curbing" his free speech.
Doran says he plans to become an activist of his own over the next decade, speaking out about the abuses of adjunct professors.
"My business sense told me they were going to fire me," he says. "My academic sense said they're going to see the light. My business sense was correct."
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