Amid controversies over COVID-19 and fired professors, some blame Collin College's president
During the pandemic, some professors have criticized the college system administration for its handling of COVID-19 cases and campus health and safety.
Speaking up about pandemic safety concerns, speaking out politically, or both, can get you canned at Collin College, say professors who’ve suffered that fate.
So instructors who want to talk – and keep their jobs – have found a workaround when addressing trustees and college system president H. Neil Matkin at school board meetings.
“The statement that follows is not mine but was written by a Collin College faculty member who, due to a real fear of retaliation, requested that I speak their words,” said John Lingenfelder, who spoke at a recent Collin College board meeting.
“I’m here once again to read a statement from a faculty member who wishes to remain anonymous for fear of getting fired,” Leslie Cunningham said. “A lot of those, apparently.”
These anonymous complaints mostly target Matkin, who took over six years ago after serving as executive vice president for the Louisiana Community and Technical College System.
Over the past year, several controversies have been swirling around the college system in Collin County, north of Dallas.
Some faculty say morale is low because of continued concerns regarding COVID-19 safety protocols. For a long time, the college didn’t post COVID case counts online. Matkin once wrote that the pandemic’s effects “have been blown utterly out of proportion.” Meanwhile, over the summer, the college’s dean of nursing died from COVID-19 complications.
National organizations have berated the school, blaming Matkin for speech and academic freedom violations. Professors who’ve been fired have sued the college.
Matkin declined several requests to comment for this story.
A tweet leads to a dismissal
Tensions began to bubble more than a year ago, after some faculty, like longtime professor Audra Heaslip, wanted the college to consider online-only classes during COVID-19.
“The board of trustees made the decision for the college to go back face-to-face during the pandemic. I did not merely accept that but I questioned it,” Heaslip said. “They told me that I put outside pressure on the college to go completely online, which is not accurate.”
Heaslip was fired. She wasn’t the only one.
There’s history professor Lora Burnett, whose contract wasn’t renewed after she sent a negative tweet about then-Vice President Mike Pence.
Burnett's Twitter post led to complaints from State Rep. Jeff Leach, a Plano Republican, who tweeted that Burnett should go. He also sent a text message to Matkin asking if Burnett was paid with taxpayer dollars. Matkin responded, saying he would "deal with it."
Burnett said her free speech rights were violated. The school denied the accusation and said it doesn’t talk about personnel issues.
In October, Burnett sued the college.
The school fired another professor, Suzanne Jones, who taught at Collin College for 20 years. She told KERA it was because she questioned the college’s COVID health protocols. Jones, too, has sued the college.
“Any classes that could be put online should or that you could give teachers a choice,” Jones said. “Either way, it would lessen the number of students at the building. You could still have carpentry and automotive and things like that, meeting face-to-face. But let’s take out English and things like that which could be put online easily, if the faculty member wants to. Give me the freedom to make that decision in a pandemic.”
Jones said she and Heaslip were also targeted because the two were members of a teachers’ non-bargaining union that administrators didn't like – the school’s chapter of the Texas Faculty Association.
All fired professors have been women.
The high-profile firings grabbed the attention of investigative reporter Michael Vasquez. In preparing a story for the Chronicle of Higher Education, he sought out former Collin College employees, and ran into problems. He learned many had signed nondisclosure agreements or NDAs. They’re rare for universities, but not Collin College, Vasquez said.
“There were a number of former employees who I talked to who mentioned, 'You know, sorry, I wish I could talk to you, wish I could dish dirt or whatever, but I signed an NDA and I can’t,'” Vasquez said. “So I don’t have a firm grasp of how many, but I can tell you it’s not three, it’s not five, not seven. It seems like it’s considerably more.”
Vasquez confirmed a story about the time Matkin put a bowl on his head, as if he were wearing a yarmulke. He was impersonating the college’s previous president, who’s Jewish.
Matkin told Vasquez he was "going for a couple of laughs."
Collin College history professor and writer Michael Phillips was shocked.
“I wonder how comfortable Jewish people feel at this institution where they think a symbol of their faith is a punchline?” Phillips said.
Matkin, who’s not Jewish, told Vasquez he made a mistake, and would never do that again.
Support from board members
While he has his critics, Matkin has supporters.
Most college board members, including Vice Chair Jay Saad, have routinely lauded the president for enrollment growth during a tough pandemic year.
“One of the nice things we’ve seen is everybody’s commitment here today, and our enrollment continuing to grow, while other colleges are decreasing,” Saad said. “That’s a great sign.”
But trustee Stacy Donald says at times Matkin is arrogant and out of touch with student needs.
“I have texted, I have emailed about various things like asking to have our board meetings done remotely because I was under the care of an oncologist and didn't feel comfortable about going,” Donald said. “I get very curtly and summarily dismissed.”
'An incredibly trying time'
Early on in the pandemic, Matkin dismissed faculty concerns over COVID-19, writing that the chance of dying in a motor vehicle accident in Texas was greater than dying from the coronavirus.
But after faculty and student deaths, plus the ongoing infection rate driven up by the delta variant, Matkin changed his tune a bit. He recorded a video greeting at the beginning of the fall semester.
“We’re living through an incredibly trying time,” Matkin said. “One which has tested us in so many ways. One that has dealt significant losses to so many of us.”
While Vasquez, the investigative reporter, acknowledged Matkin’s shift regarding COVID-19, it was a change barely noticeable.
“He acknowledged mistakes — to a point,” Vasquez said. “And I think that’s a fair characterization of probably what we’ve seen from not just Dr. Matkin but some board of trustee members.
“It’s mostly ‘Hey we could have done things better, but we’re still doing a good job.’”