Collin College Professors' Fight For COVID-19 Protocols Shifts To A Fight Over Free Speech
There have been dozens of conflicts across the state tied to public safety protocols. At Collin College, three professors spoke out about the school’s handling of the coronavirus and now they’re fighting to keep their jobs.
From salon owner Shelly Luther’s decision to defy county directives that ordered businesses to close during the early stages of the coronavirus outbreak to Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins’ recent criticisms of Gov.Greg Abbott’s lifted mask mandate, North Texas has been a hotbed for COVID-19 culture clashes during the pandemic.
KERA reporters Bill Zeeble and Hady Mawajdeh have been following one of these skirmishes at Collin College over the past few months. Here's a breakdown of what’s happened so far and how a disagreement over the college’s response to the coronavirus has evolved into a fight over free speech.
How Did The Fight At Collin College Begin?
Like many community colleges and four-year universities in America, Collin College had to halt in-person classes last March. But before the end of the spring semester, school president Neil Matkin was already working with Collin County Judge Chris Hill to bring back face-to-face classes. And during the summer — when COVID-19 cases were at an all-time high — Matkin informed the college’s faculty and staff that the majority of classes would be in-person during the fall semester.
Shortly after that announcement, Matkin sent out an email to faculty and the college’s board of trustees that shared fall enrollment numbers for the college. The email also included Matkin’s personal views on the severity of the coronavirus.
“The effects of this pandemic have been blown utterly out of proportion,” he said.
Then, he said the media’s reporting on the coronavirus was “reported with unfortunate sensationalism and few facts.”
How Did Collin College Faculty Respond To The Return To In-Person Class?
After Matkin’s August email, and before the semester began, longtime humanities professor — Audra Heaslip — wrote a resolution that concluded Collin Colleges’ COVID safety measures didn’t do enough to protect at-risk students or faculty.
The resolution included several proposals, like moving as many classes as possible online, and having the faculty and staff involved in making the final decision to return to face-to-face classes. And according to several Collin College professors, about one-third of the faculty signed Heaslip’s resolution.
Matkin’s response to the resolution was cordial. But ultimately, the requests in the resolution were ignored and the school pushed forward with its plan to reopen.
What Happened When Classes Restarted At Collin College?
Unlike a lot of colleges in the state, Collin College chose not to create an online dashboard that shared the total number of COVID-19 cases among students and staff.
Schools such as Southern Methodist University, the University of North Texas, and the University of Texas-Dallas, all created dashboards. Community colleges in Dallas, Denton and Austin also had online dashboards that were updated regularly.
"I asked could the college please make the numbers available at the very least to the employees, because the majority of employees, faculty and staff, are required to go to campus. And no one has any idea if the college is a hot spot," Heaslip told KERA in November. "Nobody has any idea if maybe there’s one case or maybe there’s 20 or 200."
Despite the requests, Collin College declined to give in to pressure. That’s even after the president revealed to board members — and basically the public — that a student had died of COVID-19.
Rogelio Martinez was a working adult student who had a job and wanted to improve his job options through school. His widow had told the college her husband got infected in early October and never recovered. But the news of Martinez’s death was not shared with the board until the end of October.
Did Any Faculty Members Get Infected With Coronavirus?
The same month that Rogelio Martinez died, a faculty member named Iris Meda was infected after being exposed while teaching. She also died. And some on the faculty criticized the way Collin College communicated her death.
According to emails shared with KERA by faculty members, Meda’s death was shared in an email sent to the college community with the subject line “College Update & Happy Thanksgiving!”
History professor Lora Burnett took to Twitter to pan the college for the way it communicated the news that a professor had been died because of COVID-19.
“This is grim,” she wrote. “None of my colleagues have been able to find out which faculty member died of Covid. So we think this may have been an adjunct. And we are sickened at how little respect our college president showed for that teacher's life.”
Burnett was already in hot water with Collin College leadership because of some tweets she shared during October’s Vice Presidential debate.
Burnett’s statements were publicly condemned by Collin College’s president. And she was issued warnings both for her political statements and her response to Collin College’s announcement about Meda’s death.
The Fight Shifts From COVID-19 Protocols To Freedom Of Speech
After Burnett was issued warnings from Collin College leadership, longtime professors Audra Heaslip and Suzanne Jones were told that their contracts would not be renewed.
Heaslip was told her critical comments about the school’s COVID-19 safety protocols and the plan to return to in-person classes are to blame for her dismissal.
“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.”
Jones — who signed Heaslip’s resolution and has tried to form a non-bargaining faculty union — was told she’s not having her contract renewed for using the college’s name on a petition calling for the removal of Confederate statues.
“I feel betrayed, I feel devastated,” Jones told KERA in January. “I love Collin College. I love the community. I grew up in Plano. I went to Collin College. And I love teaching.”
Burnett has also been told she will not be asked back to teach at Collin College. Insubordination is being used as the cause for her dismissal.
How Have Students And Faculty Responded To Professors Effectively Being Fired?
More than 100 protesters showed up to a Collin College board meeting on March 2 to demand that the three professors be reinstated. About 25 of those protesters also made statements to the board during the meeting.
Helen Chang, a candidate for the Collin College Board of Trustees, told the current board that “the ship must be righted” and asked that the professors be allowed to come back to the school.
“An institution of higher learning must be respectful of different viewpoints and allow dissent, discussion and free speech,” she said to the board. “Shutting down voices that disagree with yours while disregarding public health experts teaches students the wrong lessons about civics, governance and the importance of education.”
Collin College professor Michael Phillips also addressed the board on behalf of the professors. And he expressed concern about the fact that Jones was told that her signing of a petition to remove Confederate statues was one of the reasons the college would not bring her back.
“This college administration wants to fire one of our most talented professors because she confronted them with the hardest truths about this state and our nation — that our past and our present are equally stained with racism,” he said. “It takes someone with courage and exceptional character, like Suzanne Jones to do the hard work of dismantling racism.”
Is It Possible For The Professors To Keep Their Jobs?
All three professors have filed appeals. Jones and Heaslip will have their grievances meetings this week. If they win those appeals, they might be invited back. If they don’t win their appeals, there are a couple other ways they can try to save their jobs. But it’s really a wait-and-see sort of game.
What Has Collin College Had To Say About All Of This?
KERA has reached out to Collin College and President Matkin for comment on multiple occasions throughout this months-long developing story, but the school does not discuss personnel matters with the media.
Matkin’s defenders have said that he’s being “unfairly maligned.” And some on the board feel as though Matkin understands the effect of COVID-19 better than most because he’s told them that he has relatives who died of COVID-19.
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