At Collin College, a Collision Over Free SpeechHistorians in the News
tags: academic freedom, Collin College
In an email sent to faculty on March 15, Collin College President Neil Matkin reflected on what he called a “difficult, challenging year.” The pandemic forced the community college to move all classes online about a year ago. But during the summer, with COVID-19 case numbers at then-record highs, Matkin announced his decision to resume holding most classes in-person that fall.
The effects of the pandemic had been “utterly blown out of proportion,” he said at the time. Some professors opposed aspects of the reopening, asking that more classes be kept online to protect students and staff. They made their case in a resolution. Matkin disagreed with much of it, pointing toward the health protocols the college was enforcing, including requiring masks and social distancing. The 10 campuses, which have a total enrollment of nearly 60,000 students, effectively reopened.
Then in November, Iris Meda, a 70-year-old nursing teacher at Collin College, died after contracting COVID-19. Her family has said they believe she was infected at work. Her death, along with Matkin’s response—he told faculty members one of their colleagues had died of a contagious virus nearly two-dozen paragraphs into an email with a subject line of “College Update & Happy Thanksgiving!”—led to renewed criticism of the college’s handling of COVID-19.
It also deepened the tension brewing between some faculty members and the college’s president. The first signs of trouble go back years, but a new front was opened in the last several months, when the college moved to dismiss three professors who had criticized the college’s reopening. All women, two of them were members of the local chapter of a non-bargaining union. One had been reprimanded in 2017 for signing her name and college affiliation to a letter asking for the removal of Confederate monuments in Dallas. Another had scrapped with Matkin in the fall over a tweet in which she said then-Vice President Mike Pence should shut “his little demon mouth up.”
Elected Republicans, including Collin County Judge Chris Hill and state Rep. Jeff Leach, have publicly supported the college’s administration. Internet pundits have perceived some irony in what appears to be a case of liberal college professors fearing retribution from what they understand to be a conservative administration. (At other higher learning institutions, debate more often revolves around whether professors are progressive enough.)
For months now, the college has been at the center of a battle over free speech, labor rights, and the politicization of a public health crisis. A neat resolution seems unlikely. Last week, a fourth professor said she was unfairly being pushed from her position—Matkin, the final word on faculty contract renewals, approved her non-renewal as he did with the other three professors. And the faculty members and advocates demanding that the professors be reinstated have grown more outspoken as the fight drags on. At a board of trustees meeting last week, one speaker called Matkin a “disease destroying the college.”
History professor Michael Phillips, one of Matkin’s fiercest critics, portrays what’s been happening at Collin College as a social and political struggle. He describes it as a “purge,” calling it part of an administrative effort to prevent Collin County students from embracing progressive ideals.
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