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Education

Two Collin College Professors Say They're Being Dismissed After Criticizing COVID-19 Policies

Glass front entrance of Collin College's Wiley campus.
Collin College
/
Collin.edu
Collin College's Wiley campus.

The two long-time female professors say they were also dismissed because they're officers of the school's Texas Faculty Association chapter. The college said it respects the instructors' privacy and cannot comment on personnel issues.

Two Collin College professors whose contracts are not being renewed say there were ousted by leaders who did not like their views surrounding the system’s COVID-19 policies. The news follows months of concerns from faculty over COVID-19.

The professors say they were fired, even if on paper, they were told their contracts would not be renewed in May. Audra Heaslip, who’s taught humanities at Collin College for more than a decade, was called into a meeting with some administrators.

A woman wearing glasses smiling for the camera.
Audra Heaslip

“The college has been really careful over the last few days to deny that I or my colleague were fired,” Heaslip said. “As if it’s a completely normal thing for someone who’s been teaching full-time more than 10 years with not a single student complaint, not a single disciplinary notice.”

Heaslip said it was called a non-renewal. But she says she was fired.

“Usually if there’s a problem with a contract, they give someone a couple different ways to provide a portfolio,” Heaslip said. “Even a one-year contract is considered kind of the minimum. But in my case, they said ‘continue through May and after that you’re done.’”

Heaslip said in part it’s because she spoke out about how the college system was handling COVID-19. She prepared a resolution – signed by 130 faculty members – that expressed concerns over returning to in-person classes. She and other faculty also demanded the school publish data about the number of COVID-19 infections among employees and students.

President Neil Matkin, who in August said COVID’s effects were blown utterly out of proportion, wanted instructors and students back on campus as soon as possible.

“What people are calling outspoken is speaking the truth,” Heaslip said, “having integrity and trying to make sure we hold each other accountable. I don’t expect to agree with colleagues on everything, but I feel like we should be able to disagree without fear. There’s a real toxic culture of fear.”

Collin College issued a statement saying that in consideration of the privacy of its employees, it does not publicly comment on internal personnel matters.

Heaslip said college officials told her that her contract wasn't being renewed because, in part, she violated the college's core values.

Education professor Suzanne Jones, who also signed Heaslip's resolution, was told the same thing. Her contract also isn't being renewed. Jones, who’s been at the college for 20 years, feels betrayed by administrators.

“I have great teacher evaluations, great student evaluations, great service to the college,” Jones said. “I have my students doing service in the community all the time. I mean, I live by our core value. I teach the core values to my classes. For them to use that on me is just questionable at best.”

Professionally taken photo of a woman with long hair. She is wearing a blazer.
Suzanne Jones

Jones also has another theory for their dismissals. Both she and Heaslip are leaders of the school’s chapter of the Texas Faculty Association.

“Out of our three local Collin officers, two of us were fired. So it clearly seems to be about TFA. We have our first meetup to recruit new members so that also seems like they’re sending a message,” Jones said.

If that’s what they’re doing, Adam Steinbaugh says the school’s crossed the line. He’s an attorney with FIRE, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.

“Under First Amendment the employer doesn’t have to recognize a union. But you do have a First Amendment right to associate with one another in order to argue for an improvement in society, or your political views, or what have you. That is protected by First Amendment,” said Steinbaugh.

The college generated headlines last fall when the school's president blasted a professor who went on social media criticizing former Vice President Mike Pence.

Several professors have told KERA they are afraid of losing their jobs if they speak critically of the school's leadership.

Pat Heintzelman is president of the TFA, and says she’s had more calls about Collin than any other college in Texas.

“Collin doesn’t believe in academic freedom or shared governance,” said Heintzelman, “and they sure don’t want any advocacy groups on their campus. They want to remove any power from faculty.”

Both Heaslip and Jones say they plan to file a grievance and appeal their dismissal.

At an emergency board meeting on Feb. 5, faculty and students defended the instructors.

History professor Michael Phillips told trustees that faculty members don't feel safe because the administration doesn’t have their backs.

“For merely communicating their worries about Covid,” Phillips said, “professors Heaslip and professor Suzanne Jones have been fired. This has only confirmed for faculty their worst suspicions. What does this sequence of events say about the type of college we’ve become — an institution built of suspicion and distrust.”

Courtney Brooks, who studied at Collin College, directed her ire at the school’s president, H. Neil Matkin.

“What you’re doing is dangerous in saying the COVID virus is blown out of proportion. It’s wrong. You need to pay attention to it. You need to help make your faculty and your students the priority and make them safe. You need to go,” Brooks said.

Another speaker reminded trustees that three of their seats are up for election this spring, and voters will be watching what happens.

News of the professors’ departures comes as the college system has been criticized for how it’s handling the coronavirus pandemic. Last fall, faculty members criticized the college for not having a dashboard that lists positive cases among faculty and students. The college eventually started posting details about cases.

In December, the college system extended its winter break closure, citing a “recent regional surge in COVID-19 cases” and allowed full-time employees to work remotely for a week in December and a week in January. It also moved its “Wintermester” session, a mini-semester in December and early January, online.

Got a tip? Email Reporter Bill Zeeble at bzeeble@kera.org. You can follow him on Twitter @bzeeble.

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