Why I’m Suing the NC Department of Public Instruction
Why I’m Suing the NC Department of Public Instruction
Editor's note: The following piece, written by Alliance Defending Freedom client Dr. David Phillips, originally appeared at The Carolina Journal.
Teachers are fired nearly every day in America, for all kinds of reasons. None should include a teacher’s doing exactly what he was hired to do and had done without complaint several times before.
That, however, was my experience in losing my job of eight years teaching at the North Carolina Governor’s School, a residential summer program for our state’s most talented, rising high-school seniors. During the 2021 session, I was dismissed without warning or explanation right after giving a series of lectures espousing the principles of free inquiry and viewpoint diversity on which the Governor’s School is based.
That’s an irony apparently lost on the program’s administrators.
I had cherished the experience of teaching at the Governor’s School since first joining its faculty in 2013. The school’s own website describes it as “a safe, non-competitive intellectual environment where ideas from many disciplines are entertained and all active learners are taken seriously.” That was an ideal setting for a teacher, like me, who delights in challenging students to think for themselves … to move beyond their own biases and assumptions … to seriously consider perspectives that differ from the current cultural waves and political fashions.
Over the years, though, I could see that the social and political shifts that have pushed critical race theory, gender identity, and other progressive philosophies to the forefront of our culture were beginning to dominate the Governor’s School’s faculty and curriculum — to the exclusion of other, alternative, and dissenting views.
Beginning in 2017, I shared with colleagues and administrators my concerns about the effects of these movements on our teaching, curriculum, and learning environment. Unfortunately, the Governor’s School refused to address these concerns.
All faculty at the Governor’s School are invited to supplement their regular course work with seminars on topics of their choosing. The seminars are optional; no student or staff member is required to attend. Several years ago, in an effort to promote viewpoint diversity and counter the increasing ideological orthodoxy I saw at the school, I began offering lectures presenting alternatives to critical race theory and identity politics and critiquing the lack of viewpoint diversity in American education.
My intention was not and has never been to persuade students to adopt my own beliefs. What I intend is that they should challenge their own presumptions, experience other points of view, and draw their own reasonable conclusions from thoughtful analysis so they will see the value in diversity of thought.
Governor’s School officials understood that intention, and no one ever expressed any concerns or objections.
But in the summer of 2021, during the question-and-answer sessions following my lectures, I experienced particularly palpable hostility from some students and fellow staff. They attacked “whiteness” and “the patriarchy,” even though my lectures were about ideas, not identities. Mostly, though, they seemed to resent that anyone would dare present views contrary to critical theory.
Enduring especially aggressive pushback after my last lecture, I sought out our site director several times the next day to discuss it. He was never in his office. But I did receive word that the program coordinator wanted to meet with me that afternoon. We’d always been on friendly terms, but this meeting was cool, terse, and to the point: My time at Governor’s School was over.
When I asked why I was being fired, he said that he was “not at liberty” to discuss that with me. He said only that officials were taking the English curriculum “in a new direction.” He never said what that “new direction” was, nor why I couldn’t be a part of it. I can only presume that it entails a reversal of the principles of free inquiry and ideological diversity on which the program was founded.
I’m challenging my termination in court through my attorneys with Alliance Defending Freedom because I’d like to see those principles restored. I’d like to see greater accountability among those responsible for maintaining the Governor’s School’s original mission of teaching students to think for themselves. And I’d like to be a part of that program again — helping our most gifted teens bring their fine minds to bear on the most important issues of our time.
Now that I have filed a lawsuit, government officials are moving to cover their actions against me. The superintendent of public instruction — someone I’ve never met — recently published a letter falsely accusing me of belittling students, refusing to provide an open and engaging learning environment, and even using racial slurs.
Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, it was I who was belittled, whose efforts to provide an open and engaging learning environment were repeatedly opposed, and whose race was denigrated. To have these baseless accusations cynically leveled against me is genuinely galling and hurtful.
What’s more, the superintendent’s claims make little sense given that the Governor’s School allowed me to teach there for eight years, presenting the same content in the same style they had approved so many times before. Indeed, the Governor’s School’s own administrators gave me performance reviews praising me for the “welcoming and engaging environment” in my classroom.
If there were ever complaints about anything I said or did, no one told me what they were, no one allowed me to respond, and no one made a serious attempt to find out what really happened. Instead, it appears they took the opportunity to get rid of someone whose views they didn’t like. Now, they’re attempting to rewrite the history of what happened that summer and to redefine my character to fit their imaginary account.
Will they succeed? I know many people will assume what I might once have assumed if I heard a teacher had been axed: “He must have done something wrong.” All I ask is that you seek out the facts and draw your own conclusions. Don’t just blindly trust anyone’s account of what happened or assume that educational administrators must surely be trying to do the right thing.
That was my mistake.
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