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.”