Tuesday, May 21, 2024 May 21, 2024
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At Collin College, a Collision Over Free Speech

One of North Texas' largest community college districts is at the center of a battle over labor rights and the politicization of a public health crisis. What comes next?
Photo by Nick Young courtesy of Collin College
In an email sent to faculty 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 had 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.

“The students aren’t at all invested in the political status quo because it may not benefit all the students,” Phillips says. “So you might get some young radicals when they go to college and learn about labor history, or they learn about lynching. … These ideals might radicalize them. I think the political establishment at the college wants to make sure that doesn’t happen.”

And it all comes back, again and again, to Neil Matkin.

“The college has entered into a very grim and ominous phase in terms of the administration,” Phillips says. “Since the current president took office, in 2015, there’s been a creeping authoritarianism that has become a galloping authoritarianism.”

Collin College President Dr. H. Neil Matkin, posing here in a courtesy photo from the college, has faced mounting criticism over the college’s handling of COVID-19 and the dismissal of several professors. Photo by Nick Young, courtesy of Collin College.

College officials have largely declined to speak with reporters, citing a policy against discussing personnel decisions. But Matkin and the elected chairman of the Collin College Board of Trustees, Bob Collins, (both of whom said they had been fully vaccinated against COVID-19) agreed to meet with me Friday at the college’s Higher Education Center in McKinney. It was the first interview either has given regarding the controversy swirling around the college.

Without addressing specifics in the cases of individual professors who are being let go, Matkin said the college went through its usual due process in deciding to not renew the contracts of a total of nine faculty members this year. (According to the college, there are 520 full-time faculty members and 840 adjuncts.)

Matkin pushed back on claims that he’s responsible for creating a toxic work environment, saying the professors who have so vocally opposed him constitute a small group in a faculty body whose members are generally happy with Collin College and his leadership. He denied any political influence on his decision-making. And he defended the move to reopen campuses last fall, saying it was done in compliance with health and safety guidelines and saved hundreds of jobs at the college.

Matkin says part of his reluctance to speak to the media over the last 12 months stems from his view that much of the reporting on Collin College has been inaccurate, referring to “editorial pieces rather than fact-based pieces.” In the early days of the pandemic, he was also skeptical of what he describes as the “sensational” tone of many news reports about COVID-19. While reporters and public health officials analyzed total infections in Collin County, he says he was trying to focus “on the question of survivability.”

The dangers of the pandemic could be managed, in his view. “Let’s focus on [the] new normal,” he said last week. “Let’s figure out how to mitigate this and go forward safely.”

Had campuses closed that fall, Matkin says, the college would have had to furlough more than 300 staffers and between 60 to 80 faculty members. Instead, the college reduced class sizes, continued to offer online components, and mandated masks and social distancing on reopened campuses. Professors at high risk or with health conditions were allowed to teach remotely. The college followed guidelines from the CDC and the state in developing its plan, he says, and the administration has spent more than $2 million upgrading ventilation at each of the campuses.

Unlike other colleges and universities in the area, Collin College did not immediately share COVID-19 cases among students and faculty via an online dashboard. Matkin chalks that up in part to the absence of nurses on the college’s staff. He also contends it was difficult to get accurate case numbers.

“We didn’t want to put up numbers that made it look like there’s a super-spreader event going on when, in fact, there wasn’t,” he says. Because cases of COVID-19 among faculty members and students were self-reported, there was no way to verify whether they were genuine, Matkin says. “The reality is we were happy to report the numbers,” he says. “We were just trying to get it in a manner that made sense and didn’t imply we had residential housing with doctors on campus, and that these are certified cases.”

(In October, a student named Rogelio Martinez died after contracting COVID-19, and after Meda’s death in November, the college in December suspended in-person classes for a month and began publishing an online dashboard tracking cases.)

Matkin says he was caught off guard by the opposition to aspects of the reopening. “What I underestimated was that there are people who are scared beyond anything that I could imagine,” he says. “And they weren’t wanting to hear somebody talk to them about operating in the new normal. What they wanted to hear was the college is closing. And I didn’t say that. If I had to go back and do it over again, I wouldn’t try to bring logic to an emotional argument as I did.”

At the time, Matkin told faculty members in an email that the effects of the pandemic were “overblown,” and that Texans were “one hundred times more likely” to die in a car crash than from COVID-19. His math was wrong, Matkin now admits, but he stands behind his point that it was possible to mitigate the risks of the virus.

“I think early on it was hard to get good information. I do not believe [the effects of the pandemic] were overblown. In fact, it’s proven to be a worldwide tragedy,” he says now. “There were things that I did say early on that—would I say them today knowing where this thing was headed and what was going on? No. What I was trying to do was calm fears and trying to help, but I wasn’t terribly helpful at that point.”

News reports citing members of her family say that Iris Meda, the Collin College nursing instructor who died in November after contracting COVID-19, first thought she would be teaching online. Matkin disputes this.

“Iris Meda was planning to teach face-to-face nursing classes from the day that she was hired, and she knew that and had been excited about it, according to folks that knew her,” he says.

Matkin says that Meda and others in her classroom were wearing masks, and administrators do not know for certain whether she contracted the virus at Collin College. One of her students did test positive for the virus shortly before she began experiencing symptoms.

“Her death is tragic,” Matkin says. “It’s unfortunately become a symbol for some [faculty members]. My response to them just recently was, ‘Friends, we have a lot of faculty members that pass away for a lot of reasons.’” (In response to calls that the college memorialize Meda, Matkin has suggested honoring “all of our fallen colleagues.”)

Matkin attributes his seemingly callous announcement of Meda’s death—deep in an email about other college updates and news around Thanksgiving—to something of a clerical snafu. He intended that another email with more information on Meda, including details on funeral services, would be sent out first. But it was held up while he waited for word from her family, he says. (The Thanksgiving email did not include Meda’s name.)

Early this year, three professors who had opposed the college’s reopening were told their contracts would not be renewed, and what had been a fight over COVID-19 safety erupted into something else. Professors have decried what they call a “culture of fear” at the college, and advocates for academic freedom and free speech have accused administrators of cracking down on faculty members for speaking their minds.

Matkin says he has heard the criticism. “Senior administration has come to realize that there is an apparent lack of understanding regarding several fundamental issues at the college such as shared governance, academic freedom, freedom of speech, our contract renewal process, and the terms of our faculty contracts,” he wrote in an email this month announcing the formation of a “faculty committee on shared governance” whose leader he has appointed. “My sense is that we need to come together to discuss these concepts.”

Speakers at a recent meeting of Collin College’s board of trustees demanded the reinstatement of three professors who say they are being pushed out in part for their criticism of the college’s reopening plan during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Matkin says he wishes he’d spent more of the last year listening rather than speaking. But he got an earful last week. During the public comment section of the college’s board of trustees meeting, about two dozen speakers—including faculty members and people reading letters from anonymous faculty members who said they were scared of losing their jobs—laid into the college’s president. (Matkin and the board’s chairman said in our interview that there is “no way of knowing” whether those letters were genuine. They maintained that only a small group of professors is upset with administrators.)

The evening’s most noteworthy speaker was Barbara Hanson, an English professor at the college, who announced that she, too, was being let go with what she said was a lack of due process. Like the other three professors who have garnered so much news coverage over their dismissals, Hanson is a woman, and she believes she is being dismissed unfairly. Also like the others, Hanson is not being fired—not technically. Instead, college administrators decided against renewing her contract.

Unlike some of her colleagues, however, Hanson says she does not suspect a political motivation behind her dismissal. In deciding not to renew her contract, the college cited her applications for administrative positions and several recent negative student evaluations as evidence she was no longer interested in teaching, she says. She says those claims are unsubstantiated. However, “I will never badmouth the college or the personnel there,” she took pains to say in a phone interview.

History professor Lora Burnett, whose tweets about Mike Pence first earned her the ire of school leadership, was told her contract would not be renewed because of what the college termed insubordination. She’d spent months fighting with administrators over her tweets and her criticism of the college’s response to COVID-19.

Professors Audra Heaslip and Suzanne Jones had previously been told their contracts would not be renewed. Both had signed a resolution opposing the school’s reopening during the pandemic, and both were members of the local chapter of the Texas Faculty Association, a faculty union prevented by state law from collective bargaining.

“I believe the organizing efforts are at the heart of our case,” says Jones. She had been warned earlier by administrators about her name appearing on the Texas Faculty Association website alongside her affiliation with Collin College. “This is precedent-setting,” she says. “That means any college president, if he doesn’t agree with [a faculty member’s] political speech or health and safety advocating, he can let them go.”

Jones says she and Heaslip were denied due process in their respective dismissals, with no “paper trail” of poor performance reviews or assessments that would otherwise justify the nonrenewal of their contracts. Jones had been reprimanded once before, in 2017, when she and other professors signed their name to a letter which was published in the Dallas Morning News that called for the removal of Confederate memorials in Dallas.

Jones, Heaslip, Burnett, and Hanson are four of nine faculty members (five women and four men) whose contracts were not renewed this year, which is fairly typical, Matkin says. “Every year we have a number of [U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission] complaints and folks that bring concerns. This year you’re hearing about three—now four—because they’ve publicized the process. There are a total this year of, I believe, nine, and you haven’t heard of five others because they’re not playing at Facebook and Twitter.”

Every professor, in a contract year, goes through a review with multiple steps. Eventually, all the paperwork—with recommendations from a faculty member’s dean and associate dean and campus provost—lands on Matkin’s desk. The final decision is his. “In this case, there were non-renewals that as I looked and asked questions and reviewed the data that was presented to me, I upheld,” he says.

Each of the four professors has initiated a grievance process through the college. In this process, hearings are held with administrators who have no history with the faculty member, as chosen by the college’s human resources department. If a faculty member convinces those administrators and wins their case, the college’s decision can be overturned.

Jones, Heaslip, Burnett, and Hanson are all still teaching at the college this spring. They have filed grievances in an effort to keep their jobs after the semester ends. Hanson has already lost her case. The others are waiting.

“The thing that’s made this unique more than anything else?” Matkin says. “I’ve never had pre-litigation settlement offers before. I’ve never had folks retain attorneys before they’ve even gone through the grievance process before.”

“The college has entered into a very grim and ominous phase in terms of the administration. Since the current president took office in 2015, there’s been a creeping authoritarianism that has become a galloping authoritarianism.”

Michael Phillips, history professor and author

Jones says she and Heaslip are being represented by an attorney in their grievance hearings, but that she did not know of any settlement offer being made to the college. She is waiting for the grievance process to be resolved before considering any legal action, she says. (The Texas Faculty Association, of which Jones and Heaslip are members, said in February it was exploring legal options.)

Whatever happens with the outgoing professors, Matkin and current faculty members recognize the difficulty in moving on from the last 12 months. Michael Phillips, a professor at the college for more than 13 years and the author of White Metropolis, a book on the fraught history of race relations in Dallas, has emerged as one of the more vocal critics of Matkin and the school’s administration. Phillips is also the co-author of the letter, signed by Jones, that demanded the removal of Confederate memorials in Dallas in 2017. He says that professors at the college feel “a sense of dread” that what they say, in class or outside of it, may cost them their jobs. The college’s leaders “don’t want any members of the faculty to be attached to progressive causes,” Phillips says.

Matkin says he has no objection to faculty members engaging in political activity or social activism as “private citizens,” so long as they are not presenting themselves as representatives of the college. “Some people want the college to be involved in social justice matters,” he says. “The board [of trustees] has chosen to serve all; not offend any. It gets to be an interesting needle to thread.”

Phillips and Matkin have butted heads over the years. Both men told me of their first encounter, in 2015, when Matkin was interviewing for the president’s job at Collin College. Phillips confronted Matkin about his past connection to the Worldwide Church of God, a Christian denomination that Phillips characterizes as fundamentalist, “homophobic, and patriarchal.”

“[Phillips] wanted to talk about a church I was affiliated with 20 years ago,” says Matkin, who according to his curriculum vitae earned associate’s and bachelor’s degrees from the church’s since-disbanded Ambassador College in the 1980s. “He’d come to the conclusion the church was racist and that therefore I was racist. This diatribe, this monologue, has been going on now for six years.”

The Worldwide Church of God, which is now known as Grace Communion International and has in the last several decades adopted mainstream doctrine in line with the National Association of Evangelicals, was founded in the 1930s by Herbert W. Armstrong, a radio and television evangelist. Armstrong’s sometimes controversial teachings, according to a New York Times obituary, included the espousal of “creationism and enjoying material wealth as a sign of divine favor.”

“The Worldwide Church of God had a lot of flaws—many—but it also is one of the earliest integrated churches in the entire United States,” Matkin says. “It was odd to me that [Phillips] picked on one particular narrative.”

Matkin also pushed back on a narrative that he’s in cahoots with Republican politicians like Plano state Rep. Jeff Leach. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education has published text messages, obtained from the college in a public records request, that show Leach talking with Matkin about Burnett, the professor who tweeted last fall about Vice President Pence’s “demon mouth.” (Leach had also tweeted at the professor to apparently imply that she would be fired.)

Matkin says he’d already been inundated with complaints about Burnett’s tweets, and responded to Leach’s text asking whether Burnett was paid with “taxpayer dollars” by telling the legislator he was “aware of the situation” and would deal with it. And, yes, she was paid with taxpayer dollars, he said.

“Jeff Leach has not been involved in any personnel decision here whatsoever,” Matkin says. “Now, he’s involved himself in some ways that I don’t think are the wisest. And I’ve told him so.”

Matkin further denies that politics drove any of his decisions about COVID-19. He says the college has actually dismissed faculty members who refused to wear masks on Collin College campuses, which received little outcry. “How do you write that up to a conservative trope? It’s not about conservatism or liberalism. I’m an independent,” he says. “At the end of the day, I haven’t made a single decision on the basis of left- or right-leaning. I am saddened to see that the virus has become politicized.”

“There were things that I did say early on that—would I say them today knowing where this thing was headed and what was going on? No. What I was trying to do was calm fears and trying to help, but I wasn’t terribly helpful at that point.”

Neil Matkin, president of Collin College

Phillips, whose contract is up for renewal next year, says what’s been happening at Collin College is in part a reflection of the conservative politics that have traditionally prevailed in Collin County. He believes the administration’s reaction to COVID-19 was shaped by right-wing talking points and that members of the college’s board of trustees are afraid the college could become a site for radical viewpoints. He argues that the concept of the community college is itself pretty radical. “It’s based on the notion that anyone should be able to have access to a quality education,” Phillips says. “It’s not limited to the wealthy.”

On this last point, at least, Phillips sees eye-to-eye with Bob Collins, a founding member of the 36-year-old college’s board of trustees and its current chair. Collins, who is up for reelection in May, says he continues to support Matkin, just the third president in the college’s history. He’s proud of that stability, he says.

“I’d like to be able to provide a high-quality education to every student in this district. If we could do it for free, I’d do it,” says Collins, who added that he wants to ensure taxpayers are getting “bang for their buck.” “And look at what we’ve done. We’ve educated 58,000 students this year with a tuition rate that’s $54 per hour. Not many people cheaper than that.”

Meeting with me Friday, both Collins and Matkin were eager to tout the college’s successes during the pandemic. Bucking a statewide and national trend, enrollment is actually up by 1,000 students over the last two semesters, Matkin says. The college has had no layoffs because of the pandemic.

Documents were put in my hands: a financial analysis, graduation and transfer rates, the results of a 2020 survey conducted by ModernThink, a consulting firm behind the “Great Colleges To Work For” program. The survey’s 299 anonymous respondents, including full-time and adjunct faculty and staffers, generally gave the college high marks in categories like job satisfaction and support, professional development, campus safety, and “confidence in senior leadership.”

Matkin says—and hopes I will write—that this picture of the college doesn’t match the image presented by the professors accusing him of fostering a “culture of fear.” He doesn’t see fear in his dealings with colleagues or most faculty members. He’s frustrated at how much Collin College has been in the news for all the wrong reasons. He’s wary of saying anything to faculty members that will further “complicate this storyline,” he says. He wishes that, earlier on, he’d emphasized the importance of serving students during the pandemic.

“My biggest regret right now is that somehow I’ve become the center of this, and it takes the view off of what we ought to be doing for our students,” he says.

The question of how closely Collin College’s tens of thousands of students are following the battle between the school’s president and some of its professors is largely academic, but at last week’s board of trustees meeting, almost every public speaking slot was occupied by members of the faculty. Abstract issues of shared governance at institutions of higher learning may not mean much to a student polishing off their core class credits or studying to become an information technology analyst, or a cop, or a graphic designer. They have better things to worry about.

Yet it’s students who will ultimately be most affected by decisions made at the college’s top level. In the middle of a deadly pandemic that upended higher education along with every part of our daily lives, those decisions take on an outsized importance. Lives—and livelihoods—are at stake. Students enroll in community college classes because they want to improve themselves or believe that an education will help them earn a living. College can change your life. On this, if nothing else, Collin College’s president and his critics agree.