Why Did a UCLA Instructor With a Popular Free-Speech Course Lose His Job?

July 01, 2017

Ken Shin/Daily Bruin
A group of UCLA students and alumni organized a May protest to support Keith Fink, a lecturer in the communication-studies department. Mr. Fink learned in June that the department would no longer employ him after his contract expired, at the end of the month.
According to communication-studies department leaders at the University of California at Los Angeles, the story of why Keith A. Fink lost his job isn’t an especially interesting one: He was a part-time lecturer, and his teaching wasn’t up to par.

But according to Mr. Fink, the tale is far more troubling. Mr. Fink, a conservative, says he was pushed out in large part because of his political beliefs and because one of the courses he taught — a popular class on campus free speech — dared to criticize UCLA’s own actions.

With campus free speech emerging as a hot-button national issue, Mr. Fink’s continuing struggle with his university has struck a chord. Campus Reform, the conservative news outlet, has championed him in a series of articles; Tucker Carlson, the Fox News host who regularly rails against campus liberalism, has made him a guest.

On Tuesday, June 27, Mr. Fink received a letter from Laura E. Gómez, interim dean of the College Division of Social Sciences, informing him that he would no longer be employed at UCLA once his contract ended, on June 30. "After a thoughtful and comprehensive academic review, it has been determined that your teaching does not meet the standard of excellence," Ms. Gómez wrote. (She did not respond to a request for comment from The Chronicle.)

The letter marked the latest development in a monthslong saga pitting Mr. Fink against several administrators: Ms. Gómez; Kerri L. Johnson, chair of the communication-studies department; and Greg Bryant, the department’s vice chair.

Keith A. Fink and Associates
Keith Fink: "The fact that I use current events at UCLA as teaching examples to illustrate free-speech principles likely bothers the administration, often because their campuswide emails run afoul of the First Amendment and directly or indirectly trample on students’ free-speech rights."
Mr. Fink, a lawyer, had been an adjunct faculty member in communication studies at UCLA for a decade. In one of the courses he taught, "Sex, Politics, and Race: Free Speech on Campus," he often brought up UCLA-specific speech controversies — for instance, provocative posters that appeared on the campus. In doing so, he said, he critically analyzed how university leaders had responded to the incident. At times, he said, UCLA didn’t come out looking great.

"The fact that I use current events at UCLA as teaching examples to illustrate free-speech principles likely bothers the administration, often because their campuswide emails run afoul of the First Amendment and directly or indirectly trample on students’ free-speech rights," said Mr. Fink, who was out of the country and responded to questions by email.

He has drawn the ire of administrators in other ways, too, he said. According to Mr. Fink, his conservative political beliefs have always been at odds with those of most other people on the campus. And then there was his lawyerly campus activism: On occasion he has assisted UCLA students who faced campus disciplinary or legal proceedings.

Past department leaders had supported him and "thwarted off attempts by the school to undermine or fire me," Mr. Fink said.

In July 2016, Ms. Johnson became department chair. She said she couldn’t speak for her predecessors, but stressed that "in no way has Mr. Fink’s politics been part of any classroom decision or any academic-personnel decision."

"As a top research university in the United States," she said, "we value and celebrate a diversity of opinion."

A Contentious Review

The trouble began in January, when Mr. Fink was scheduled to teach his campus free-speech course, a popular class that frequently filled up a large lecture hall. (UCLA’s academic calendar is divided into four quarters, and January marked the start of the winter quarter.)

According to Mr. Fink, Ms. Johnson abruptly limited the size of his free-speech course, to 200 students. The previous cap had been 250, he said, and he would sign permission-to-enroll forms for students who wanted to join the class as long as there were sufficient seats available.

Ms. Johnson also told him his spring-term class had been moved into a smaller lecture hall, with only 170 seats, Mr. Fink said. She "offered no concrete explanation" for the changes, he said.

Ms. Johnson disputes all of that. She said the size of the free-speech class "was not changed from his prior enrollments." Mr. Fink had asked that his course be expanded, she said, but she had decided not to increase the size of any of the department’s courses until she could review them individually.

Given that he had only one teaching assistant, 200 students was already more than ideal, Ms. Johnson said, adding that she wasn’t involved in the decision to move his spring-quarter course to a different room.

In the meantime, starting during the winter term, Mr. Fink was subject to a review that all lecturers go through after they’ve taught for 18 quarters. Faculty members who pass the review — which involves an evaluation and a vote by their department’s tenure-stream faculty members, and a final decision by the college’s dean — are promoted to "continuing lecturer."

Mr. Fink had concerns about the process from the beginning. He said he had been asked to provide a list of people he believed should be excluded from the process because they couldn’t objectively evaluate his teaching. He named Ms. Gómez and Ms. Johnson, his own chair, because they had tried "to arbitrarily reduce my class size." He added that Ms. Johnson disliked him and his political views.

He also named Mr. Bryant, the vice chair, as well as several other administrators and "all faculty members" in eight departments and programs across the university, including the departments of African-American studies, Asian-American studies, and gender studies.

The list was advisory, not binding, Ms. Johnson said. Also, she said, she didn’t learn of Mr. Fink’s political affiliation until after she had decided not to increase the course size. Mr. Fink then wrote her an email saying he felt he was being targeted because of his conservative views. "I’ve never told him what my politics are," she said.

“He's never come to any meeting or any function that we've ever had. Nobody knows him.”
Mr. Bryant wasn’t sure why he ended up on the list because he had never met Mr. Fink before evaluating his class. "He’s never come to any meeting or any function that we’ve ever had," Mr. Bryant said. "Nobody knows him."

Mr. Bryant sat in on Mr. Fink’s campus free-speech course nevertheless and wrote an evaluation. "I didn’t want to write the letter," the professor said, "but a lot of people said no" to the task.

The evaluation "was riddled with lies and misrepresentations," according to Mr. Fink. He said Mr. Bryant had taken issue with his decision to single out particular students, saying that doing so created an unwelcoming learning environment.

Mr. Fink provided The Chronicle with declarations from two students in which they said they had developed close relationships with the faculty member and had no problem being identified — one as a member of the campus Republican club, the other as a reporter and columnist for the student newspaper.

But that’s not why the class was unwelcoming, Mr. Bryant said. "He makes students uncomfortable to talk because he’s pretty aggressive back to them" if he disagrees with their point of view, he said. And Mr. Fink’s use of the discussion-based Socratic method in a large lecture hall "doesn’t really work," Mr. Bryant said.

“He was pushing his own views harder than I think he should.”
Mr. Fink also criticized specific UCLA administrators by name, Mr. Bryant said, and "he was pushing his own views harder than I think he should."

"I believe Mr. Fink clearly has a right to express those views, especially in a class on the topic of free speech," he wrote in the evaluation, "but as a teaching technique, I feel like the more he belabors his points about UCLA in particular, the more he undermines his credibility and objectivity as an instructor."

Mr. Fink acknowledged that his provocative style might feel intimidating to some students. "But a university shouldn’t be a safe space," he said.

‘The Bar Is Incredibly High’

Student evaluations of the free-speech course Mr. Fink taught this year — provided by Andrew Litt, a recent UCLA School of Law graduate who served as Mr. Fink’s teaching assistant for two years and worked in his law firm — mostly paint a picture of Mr. Fink as an engaging teacher and his course as stimulating and interesting.

“This class was the best class I have taken at UCLA.”
"This class was the best class I have taken at UCLA," one student wrote. "While I did not agree with every views [sic] of Professor Fink, his lectures stimulated and provoked a wide range of thoughts and perspectives that I believe helped me to become a better student and citizen." A handful of comments were negative; one took issue with Mr. Fink’s "arrogance," and another said he "goes off-topic a lot" but added that "this is a very minor issue."

The department’s final report, provided by Mr. Litt, stated that the review "skewed toward a favorable view of Mr. Fink’s teaching effectiveness," but said faculty members had raised concerns "about the climate fostered within the classroom" and the rigor of his assessments.

“He's a good speaker, but that's not all it takes.”
"He’s a good speaker," Mr. Bryant said, "but that’s not all it takes."

Ultimately, the nine voting faculty members deadlocked: Three voted to promote him to continuing lecturer, three voted not to, and three abstained. Ms. Gómez, the interim dean, then declined to promote him.

"The bar is incredibly high," Ms. Johnson said of the review. There is another lecturer in the department who is well qualified to teach a course on campus free speech and may do so in the future, she added.

Mr. Litt didn’t believe the review process had been fair: "If you look at his record within the department, it’s very difficult, if not impossible, to make credible arguments that he’s not excellent."

Mr. Fink said he may teach at another institution in the future, but in the meantime he is working with the university’s faculty union to file a grievance. He also plans to establish a nonprofit group that will provide free legal services to UCLA students and professors who feel their rights have been violated.

The spat illustrates what Mr. Fink describes as an intolerant culture at the university. "UCLA pays lip service to the notions of academic freedom and viewpoint diversity," he said, "but there’s an implied understanding among the school’s leaders that this really only applies if your views align with theirs."

That message has spread thanks to a steady stream of reports by Campus Reform, which has chronicled each step of the saga. A sample of the eight articles the website has published about Mr. Fink’s situation includes "UCLA still targeting conservative prof’s free speech course," "Conservative prof subject to ‘biased’ review committee," and now "UCLA fires Fink with little explanation."

UCLA’s administrators said the outrage is much ado about nothing. Mr. Fink’s case was "handled by the book," Mr. Bryant countered, and his views were not an issue. "My personal opinion about free speech is actually similar to his," he said.

"He just can’t believe that people would not think he’s an excellent teacher based on the reviews of students," Mr. Bryant added. "There’s more to it than what the students think."

Sarah Brown writes about a range of higher-education topics, including sexual assault, race on campus, and Greek life. Follow her on Twitter @Brown_e_Points, or email her at sarah.brown@chronicle.com.