A Collin College history professor who has been one of the loudest voices opposing the community college’s approach to COVID-19 safety, labor rights, and free speech will soon be out of a job.
Michael Phillips says he is being fired for exercising his constitutional rights. Technically, although it amounts to the same thing, the college is only declining to renew his contract—Collin College does not have faculty tenure, and full-time professors serve on a multi-year contract system. Collin College said in a statement that “the renewal or non-renewal of faculty contracts is a routine operational matter at the college,” and that “we are dismayed at the efforts of some individuals to present this as anything other than what it truly is.”
It’s a “routine operational matter” that has given college administrators headaches for over a year. Phillips is the fourth professor to say he is being let go for taking an outspoken stance on First Amendment issues and on the college’s COVID-19 protocols.
One of those professors, Lora Burnett, who also butted heads with administrators for tweeting disparaging remarks about then Vice President Mike Pence, recently settled with the college for $70,000. A lawsuit from another professor, Suzanne Jones, is ongoing.
Over the last year, Phillips has been one of those professors’ most vocal supporters. More recently, he says he was reprimanded by his bosses for asking (but not requiring) students in his classroom to wear masks and keep a social distance. Before the fall semester began, professors were told they could not urge or recommend that students wear masks, he says.
In classes, he talked about the history of pandemics and epidemics in North America—from Christopher Columbus to the flu of 1918 and 1919—and the body of evidence showing that masks work to prevent the spread of respiratory disease. “So this is relevant to the course,” Phillips says. “But also the public has a right to know this. And I have a First Amendment right to say these things.”
After being disciplined by his dean and associate dean, Phillips says he was later told he was being let go.
“The culture of the college has become so authoritarian,” says Phillips, who has clashed with Collin College President Neil Matkin on-and-off since Matkin took office in 2015. (Phillips has taught at the college for more than 14 years.)
The conflict, exacerbated by COVID-19, has often had a political edge. Matkin, who identifies as a political independent and has said politics play no role in his decision-making, has during the pandemic favored COVID-19 policies in line with Texas’ conservative leadership, resisting campus closures and mask mandates. Phillips is the author of a book about the history of race relations in Dallas who got in trouble with college administrators in 2017 for lending his name to an open letter calling for the teardown of Confederate monuments.
Phillips is being represented by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, the civil liberties nonprofit that backed two of his former colleagues in their lawsuits against Collin College. He is considering litigation.
“It will be interesting to see if the taxpayers of Collin County enjoy having their money spent this way,” Phillips says.