A few weeks ago, I wrote about a continuing dustup at Collin College. Three professors at the community college say they’re losing their jobs in retaliation — for their opposition to the school’s reopening plan during COVID-19, for their political speech, for their labor organizing, for some of all the above. Many of their colleagues have been joined by free speech and labor advocates in calling for the professors’ reinstatement, and in decrying what they describe as a “culture of fear” driven by conservative politics at the college. At the center of it all has been the college’s president, Neil Matkin. Critics have attacked his seemingly cavalier approach to the pandemic as much as his overall approach to education.
The Chronicle of Higher Education went long this week on what’s going on at Collin College. It’s a good story, well worth reading in full. (There’s a soft paywall; you get two free stories if you sign up.) Some of it will be familiar to anyone who’s watched this play out over the last 12 months. But there’s a lot of valuable detail on Matkin’s background and leadership record at the college, and several (as far as I can tell) previously unreported accounts of the president making tasteless and insensitive comments.
Collin College employees told The Chronicle that Matkin made “penis-related jokes” at a faculty orientation in 2019. Matkin denies this happened. Others told The Chronicle that Matkin had on a separate occasion joked about being unable to tell apart two Black deans. The president said he couldn’t recall saying that. He did admit to a third story:
At a ceremony honoring longtime college employees — each of whom received a commemorative bowl for their lengthy service — Matkin placed a bowl on his head as a fake yarmulke. He was impersonating his predecessor, Cary Israel, who is Jewish.
Matkin said the meeting had been running long and “had gotten a little bit stale.”
“There was a moment there, where I was going for a couple of laughs, and I saw a face that indicated to me immediately that I’d made a mistake,” Matkin said. “And I’ve never replicated that … and I would not do it again.”
Matkin said he couldn’t recall what he said while wearing the bowl on his head. One eyewitness who declined to be identified out of fear of professional repercussions told The Chronicle that the president blurted out: “Oh look! I’m Cary Israel!.”
Matkin insisted there was no disrespect intended.
“It wasn’t done in a spirit of mocking Cary,” Matkin said. “It was done in a, frankly, older-brother-reverence circumstance, and trying to evoke his name.”
Israel declined comment.
Collins, the board chair, said, “I wouldn’t have been offended by it, and I don’t think Cary would have been offended by it.”
“It’s a shame we can’t do things like that and not have people get offended,” Collins said.
Anecdotes like that clearly call into question Matkin’s judgment. And those tone-deaf comments from Bob Collins, chair of the college’s board of trustees, speak to some of the broader issues opened up by this months-long battle between professors and administrators at Collin College, which counts an enrollment of nearly 60,000 students across 10 campuses. In lamenting what we are and aren’t allowed to say — what will “have people get offended” — Collins is tapping into a debate that’s roiled college campuses in different ways. Matkin’s offensive joke is one thing, but what viewpoints are allowed in higher education? Does the administration have a right to restrict professors’ political speech, to keep them from supporting the teardown of Confederate statues in Dallas or opposing in-person classes during a pandemic?
In the few media interviews he’s given, Matkin has denied the influence of conservative politics on his decision-making, calling himself an independent. Yet his decision to reopen during the pandemic was motivated by talking points echoed among conservative leaders, and (as The Chronicle correctly notes) the college’s president reports to a board of trustees whose members largely identify themselves as conservatives, in a county that tends to elect Republican legislators. Some faculty members at Collin College have said trustees are wary of professors instilling students with radical progressive ideas, and board members have said as much. (The Chronicle found a telling quote from 2015, in which the board’s chair said the lack of tenure at the college is intended to keep “ultra-liberal, anti-capitalism, socialistic professors” from staying on.)
Matkin’s style has effectively been to treat students like customers and the college like a business. By some metrics this approach has been successful. Since Matkin was hired, enrollment has gone up year-over-year, with new campuses opening and more planned. In a 2016 document elaborating on his leadership philosophy, Matkin shares his admiration for companies like Amazon and Apple as well as the University of Phoenix, a for-profit online college that saw huge enrollment gains in the late 1990s and early 2000s and proved “higher education could be big business,” as American Public Media puts it.
Amazon has had its own well-documented conflicts with workers, and the tech behemoth isn’t (yet) trying to educate and enrich the minds of the next generation of community leaders — it’s trying to make money. The University of Phoenix saw its enrollment fall off a cliff in the 2010s, after federal and state regulators toughened up amid criticism that for-profit college chains left students with staggering debt and worthless degrees. The chain has paid millions of dollars in a settlement that followed accusations the University of Phoenix fed prospective students fraudulent claims in its marketing. There are clear problems with running a community college on either of those models.
Whatever Matkin’s politics may be, his leadership style reflects a widespread belief that any institution — from the federal government to a community college — is best run like a business. This notion has come under fire from both the right and the left, and the question of whether the approach actually works isn’t necessarily political. It is a question of values. Increased student enrollment and shiny new campuses look great in a certain light. That equates roughly to more customers, to growth. Pushing out some professors and refusing tenure is lowering labor costs and keeping prices down for
customers students. Good for management, good for business, in other words.
But students aren’t customers. Educational success — and student and teacher safety in a public health crisis — can’t be measured by enrollment numbers or real estate development. Ultimately, businesses value profits. What should a community college value?