"Egregious Violations" of Academic Freedom at Collin College

By Mark Criley

In April the AAUP published an investigative report concerning the Collin College administration’s summary termination of the services of Professors Lora Burnett, Suzanne Jones, and Michael Phillips. The college, based in the Dallas–Fort Worth metropolitan area, does not have a tenure system, but the AAUP regards Jones and Phillips as having held continuing appointments because their full-time service to the institution exceeded the AAUP-recommended maximum probationary period of seven years.

Burnett drew national attention in October 2020 for her tweets about the US vice-presidential debate, including one that urged Vice President Mike Pence to “shut his little demon mouth.” A state representative texted Collin’s president to point out that Burnett was “paid with taxpayer dollars”; the president replied that he was “aware of the situation” and “would deal with it.” In denying her reappointment for the following year, the administration cited her “insubordinate” challenging of the administration and governing board on social media and institutional email lists during that controversy.

In acting against Jones and Phillips, the administration cited their use of social media to exert “external pressure” on the administration regarding its COVID-19 policies instead of using “internal communications processes.” The administration’s action against Jones also invoked “misuse of the college’s name” because she had failed to prevent the Texas Faculty Association (TFA), of which she was a statewide and chapter officer, from listing her Collin College affiliation on its website and Facebook page. Collin administrators asserted that professors could not allow any organization of which they were a member or officer to publish their Collin affiliation—unless that organization was “recognized and supported” by the administration. As “a union whose mission and goals are focused on protecting employees’ rights [and] advancing the tenure system,” the TFA was not on the approved list. The administration had previously upbraided Jones and Phillips in 2017 for providing their institutional affiliations in a public letter that called for the removal of Dallas-area Confederate monuments, and in 2019 it had cautioned Phillips for speaking to the Washington Post about the local racial climate after a former Collin student was arrested for a racially motivated mass shooting. The action against Phillips was also based in part on allegations of student “perception of bias” in his history courses, including his “perceived over-emphasis on race to the detriment of a more complete picture of U.S. History.”

The investigating committee found that these bases for the administration’s actions involved “egregious violations” of all three faculty members’ academic freedom to speak as citizens and to criticize institutional policies, and, in the case of Phillips, of academic freedom to teach his subject. The committee determined that the administration dismissed Jones and Phillips from their appointments without a pretermination hearing before an elected faculty body in which the burden of demonstrating adequate cause for dismissal rests with the administration. The committee also found that the administration failed to afford Burnett the opportunity to petition an elected faculty committee to review her allegation that the nonrenewal decision violated her academic freedom. The report concludes that the conditions for shared governance and academic freedom at Collin College are “grossly inadequate."