Culture News

Author James Sallis on Quitting Phoenix College and Arizona's "Loyalty Oath"

When acclaimed author James Sallis tendered his resignation from his teaching post at Phoenix College at the end of September, he thought he’d leave his position, explain his decision to his students, and quietly spend his time at home getting to work on two new novels.

Instead, the former creative writing instructor found himself fielding calls and press requests from the likes of The Los Angeles Times and The Guardian in London, all of which came armed with two questions: What was this "loyalty oath," and why had Sallis refused to sign it?

It's been nearly two weeks since the news publicly broke about Sallis' decision, but neither the media coverage nor the conversation has quieted down — which is exactly what Sallis wants.

"Do I want it to die down? No. I hope the incident will lead others to question and consider this," he writes over a series of e-mails to New Times. "Do I want to get back to work? Yes. I make my living as a writer. I taught only from love of doing so."

For more than a decade, Sallis taught creative writing at Phoenix College, an urban offering from Maricopa Community Colleges, located off of 12th Avenue and Thomas Road.

Sallis is best known for his 2005 novel Drive, which would become a major motion picture of the same name starring the Internet’s boyfriend, Ryan Gosling, in 2011. Robert Rosenwald, president of Scottsdale-based Poisoned Pen Press, which released Drive, recently told 12 News he "believes Sallis is on a short list of authors in line for a Pulitzer Prize some day."

Needless to say, the position was a big get for the institution, with Sallis' status as a crime novelist driving attendance to the college's creative writing program — one Sallis calls "an innovative and excellent program, extremely rare in what it offers at [a] community-college level."

Earlier this year, as the college prepared for its "reaffirmation of accreditation" in 2016, its faculty files went through an internal audit. Most files were found complete during that audit, a spokesperson for Phoenix College tells New Times, but in order to "ensure all files are up-to-date with all necessary, signed documents" more than 800 adjunct faculty members were asked to sign district and state-mandated forms, including Arizona's "loyalty oath."

That's where Sallis drew the line.

"I suspect that at some time in the past, years ago, I did sign it — thoughtlessly," he says. "A friend who taught in the system for 30 years tells me he has no memory of ever signing this, though he must have. Nor do I. But that is, and especially in today's political climate, all the more reason for every one of us to pause, put down our pens, and think."

The existence of such an oath was new to Sallis. He'd never heard of it, many of his fellow faculty members and students had never heard of it, and most of the reporters who requested comment were also unfamiliar with it.

But it's there. Chapter 1, Article 4 of Title 38 applies to public officers and employees or "any person elected, appointed, or employed, either on a part-time or full-time basis, by the state, or any of its political subdivisions or any county, city, town, municipal corporation school district, public educational institution, or any board, commission or agency of any of the foregoing."

The oath itself reads in part: "Any officer or employee having taken the form of oath or affirmation prescribed by this section […] does commit or aid in the commission of any act to overthrow by force, violence or terrorism the government of this state or of any of its political subdivisions or advocates the overthrow by force, violence or terrorism of the government of this state or of any of its political subdivisions, is guilty of a class 4 felony and, on conviction under this section, the officer or employee is deemed discharged from the office or employment and is not entitled to any additional compensation or any other emoluments or benefits which may have been incident or appurtenant to the office or employment."

The signer then must swear to "bear true faith and allegiance to the same and defend them against all enemies, foreign and domestic," the oath continues.

It is this aspect and acute wording that is creating such a distrust, evoking memories and feelings that "harken back to the McCarthy era and the suppression of civil liberties and freedom of thought that characterized that period," writes Roxanne Doty, one of Sallis' former students.

"My distrust of the oath (quite aside from its absurdity) is more historical than anything else," Sallis says. "It frightens me that I well may have seen and signed this and cannot recall doing so. And I am surprised that so few of us failed to realize that these oaths, a fixture of the '50s and cold-war era, have persisted, zombie-like, into October of 2015.

"The saddest [e-mails and communications I've received] are those from people who recognized the 'loyalty oath' for the vile thing it is, had a strong sense of its history and the tremendous damage it's done in the past, yet were forced to sign the thing in order to get or keep their jobs."

Doty, who teaches courses on ethics and human rights at Arizona State University, has been a member of Sallis' creative writing courses every semester since the spring of 2013. This is a trend that comes up a lot, as many of Sallis' "former" students are also his current students. Some have been with him for close to 10 years, and others, like young adult science fiction author Amy Nichols, "credit him with my being a published author today," she tells New Times. It's the mark of an instructor who is truly beloved within his field.

As a faculty member of ASU, another public educational institution, Doty says that she, too, may have signed such an oath at some time over the 24 years she's been a professor, but she can't be sure.

"[It] does trouble me that I probably signed the loyalty oath in the past, though I honestly do not remember doing so," she says. When asked if she would knowingly sign it again, as Sallis was asked to, she says remains uncertain.

"I have thought about this a lot over the past two weeks. I would protest of course. One can never say with certainty but I like to think I would have the courage Jim Sallis had to refuse to sign. I would like to think other professors also would refuse to sign," she says. "This oath grossly violates the spirit of higher education and the freedom of conscious that we all hold dear. It is truly chilling that the institutions of higher education in Arizona, including the community colleges, but also Arizona State University uphold this oath and employees must sign or risk losing their jobs and sources of income. To pretend that this kind of oath can have no serious consequences is simply to turn a blind eye to history, an ugly piece of history."

The oath was originally written sometime before Arizona’s statehood, and became challenged in the Supreme Court during the 1966 case Elfbrandt v. Russell, during which it was deemed unconstitutional. The law was re-written and reinstated in 2003, where it exists in its current form under Arizona Revised Statutes.

"This has brought up the issue of loyalty oaths and their place in our current society," wrote a spokesperson Phoenix College in an e-mail to New Times. "We educate our students on the importance of being active members of our community and the legislative process. We encourage anyone who is interested in this issue to contact their state representative."

This echoes a sentiment set forth in e-mails to students from interim president Chris Haines, in which she urged disgruntled students that, "should you want to voice your displeasure with this state law please contact your legislative representative or you can contact the secretary of state Michele Reagan."

Ms. Haines assumed the role of interim president in April. She will remain in the role through the reaffirmation of accreditation process which will conclude in April 2016 after a campus visit from Higher Learning Commission evaluators.

According to Phoenix College, students who were enrolled in this class have been given two options upon hearing of Sallis' resignation: Either transfer to another class or to accept a refund. Through interviews with many of those same students — as well as Sallis — it seems most have chosen to withdraw from the courses, though many continue to meet privately.

"The loss of him as a teacher is tragic for me and his other students and is an unbelievable loss for Phoenix College," Doty says. "Jim Sallis gave immense credibility to Phoenix College's Creative Writing Program. It is not even a shadow of what it was without him."

"I don't plan on continuing with classes at Phoenix [College] or elsewhere in the Valley, not unless Jim is the one teaching. Jim is uniquely gifted, both as a teacher and as a writer. I doubt Maricopa has two such diamonds up their sleeve," says Amy McLane, a student of Sallis' since 2008, who has taken to organizing an alternative critique group as a stand-in for the canceled creative writing courses.

"It's the reach of the government that disgusts me, and this insistence upon showmanship," she continues. "Anyone who had true malice against the United States would simply sign the Loyalty Oath, I would think that patently obvious. Besides which, it is definitively unconstitutional, so those who would uphold it are, at best, upholding the letter of the law while ignoring its spirit. At worst, they uphold nothing at all."

In between answering e-mails and press requests, Sallis is keeping busy with his own writing and has two novels underway. The first is what he calls his "second foray into writing from a feminine perspective: a first-person look at a character who has been through war and ravage and profound social unrest and endured." He describes the second as "a near-future America comprised of city-states, a try at creating (or at least suggesting) how a totalitarian government that actually serves its citizens might work."

Issue One of a comic series of Drive, based on Sallis' successful novel of the same name, was released in late August. Sallis' next novel, Willnot, will be published in the spring.

Editor's note: This post has been modified from its original version.
KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Janessa is a native Phoenician. She joined New Times as a contributor in 2013. You can connect with her on social media at @janessahilliard, and she promises you'll find no pictures of cats on her Instagram — but plenty of cocktails.
Contact: Janessa Hilliard