President Neil Matkin doesn’t care about health, safety, or free speech at Collin College
Audra Heaslip and Suzanne Jones are well-established and highly-regarded professors at Collin College…..for the time being. Both were fired this past week by Collin’s President, Neil Matkin, for expressing their concerns about the college’s (non)response to COVID, as well as for their union activities. It’s a textbook case of retaliation and Matkin and the College administrators aren’t really trying to hide it. If Heaslip and Jones can be terminated and possibly lose their jobs, their careers, their security, paychecks, healthcare, then everyone in the academic world is at risk—a tenured professor at celebrity university, or an instructor at a community college, or a K-12 teacher anywhere in America……..
We are all Audra Heaslip and Suzanne Jones right now.
When the COVID pandemic first struck last spring, Collin College, a multi-campus institution north of Dallas with administrative headquarters in McKinney and about 60,000 students, shifted to online classes, but Matkin immediately made plans to get in-person classes going as soon as possible, COVID be damned.
Many faculty had other ideas, and Heaslip and Jones were among the most important critics of Matkin’s recklessness.
On June 30th of last year, the Collin Faculty Council passed a resolution against holding in-person classes on campus. Matkin waited two weeks to respond, made no commitment to considering remote learning, and created a difficult bureaucratic process for professors who wanted to teach online for health or other reasons, forcing them to go through HR and get permission.
Matkin himself is hardly the stereotypical college president. He looks like a 1960s sheriff out of central casting (kind of a cross between Bull Connor and Herb Tarlek). He has a degree from Ambassador College, a school run by the Worldwide Church of God, founded by Herbert W. Armstrong, one of the first televangelists to get a national following in the 1960s and 1970s. So his ideological foundation is pretty obvious. There’s nothing remarkable, to be charitable, about his background. While his political connections are not clear, he does seem fond of having his photo taken with Texas’s right-wing governor Greg Abbott, whose COVID non-responses have created a humanitarian disaster throughout the state. And as faculty concerns over COVID rose, Matkin’s response, like Abbot’s, became more harsh and retributive.
It’s also worth noting that Heaslip and Jones are active in the Texas Faculty Association (TFA), and have been campus representatives and organizers. Texas is one of the states more hostile to labor and especially with unions like the TFA, or my union, the TSEU (Texas State Employees Union), which have, in effect, a consultive and symbolic role. At one point the state TFA website included a list of the campuses at which they had members and Jones and Collin College were included on that roster. Matkin would later use that to make the case against her termination (but as soon as Jones was told that the website affiliation was an issue, she had TFA take it down). By the way, I am a professor at the University of Houston. According to Matkin, that statement is a firing offense.
To muddy the whole episode up a bit more, another professor at Collin, Lora Burnett, has been put on notice that her job is in jeopardy because, during the Vice-Presidential debates she put out a tweet basically calling Mike Pence demonic. She received the now-to-be-expected online attacks and threats, and the school essentially joined in, condemning her words and not defending her right to have her own opinions. Burnett’s Tweet, Matkin said, was “hateful, vile, and ill-considered.” Like unionization, free speech is in Collin College’s crosshairs too.
Amid all the Burnett furor, the COVID issue became even more important, and ultimately cost Heaslip and Jones their jobs. In an August letter to Collin Trustees, Matkin wrote that “the effects of this pandemic have been blown utterly out of proportion across our nation and reported with unfortunate sensationalism and few facts regardless of which news outlet one tunes into.” With such little regard for a disease that had caused about 200,000 deaths at the time, it was not surprising that Matkin ignored a faculty request to create a COVID dashboard—a record of the number of cases and deaths by COVID at the college. At a faculty meeting in mid-September the Vice-President of Campus Operations, Toni Jenkins, saw “no reason to promote and report presumed cases” and the adminstration simply rejected the dashboard suggestion.
At the beginning of Fall semester, 130 Collin faculty also supported a resolution, authored by Heaslip, calling for the school to switch to online classes as COVID numbers remained huge, another requested rejected by Matkin. Frustrated and frightened, many faculty began to speak about the COVID issue more publicly, especially Heaslip and Jones. In November they began to speak to media about the COVID dashboard issue and Collin’s general refusal to do anything about campus safety regarding the Coronavirus.
The Collin administration was angry of course. Matkin, for his part, sent out a “Happy Thanksgiving” email to the entire campus community and in the 22nd (yes, twenty-second) paragraph notified them that a Collin faculty member had died of COVID a few weeks earlier. The media began to pursue the various Collin stories with more energy and was told by PR person Marisela Cadena-Smith that the school would not comment on personnal matters “in concert with Collin College core values, particularly dignity and respect.” That would not be the last time the Collin leadership would team would talk about “personnel matters”……
Heaslip and Jones continued to bring attention to the COVID issue at Collin, however, and that cost them their jobs. Last week, on January 28th, both were called into private meetings with administrators and HR representatives and told that their contracts, which had been renewed in the Fall but not yet “stamped” (that would happen in March) would not be renewed (January 28th, by the way, was also the date of the first TFA organizing meeting of the semester).
Both Heaslip and Jones have exemplary reputations and teaching records. Their slate is absolutely clean.There are no legitimate grounds on which to dismiss them. And Collin didn’t try to hedge about the reason for its actions. It cited Heaslip and Jones for violating “personnel matters,” telling them that questioning Matkin’s COVID policies and going public with their dashboard concerns was hurting morale at Collin and making it look bad in the public, and that having Collin included on the TFA website was a firing offense too.
In Jones case, they added another cause—in 2017 she had been a signatory to a public letter, with Collin used as an identifier, calling for the removal of Confederate statues. You read that right. Matkin included Jones’s public opinion that confederate statues should be removed as a cause for firing—so on that issue Heaslip and Jones are on the same side as the JCS, most Republican senators, NASCAR, and pretty much every corporation in America, while Matkin is on the same side as Trump and most of the thugs who invaded the capitol on January 6th. They were fired for their COVID concerns, union activities, and signing a public letter. The administration said all that.
That’s not the interpretation of an angry victim. That was Collin College’s public rationale.
If you’ve ever been a professor or instructor or grad student, this story might not appear to be so shocking, even though it’s clearly horrible, but it should outrage you. Universities, despite the rhetoric of free expression, are authoritarian to the core and anyone who irritates the chancellor, president, provost, dean, chair, etc. can get in grave danger. There is generally no due process, as Heaslip and Jones have discovered. Complaints can be made anonymously. Your typical American courtroom, as terrifying as it can be, often offers you better protections than a university or college disciplinary hearing. To some point, that’s the job of administration—to make life difficult on faculty, especially left-wing, or radical, or activist faculty and grad students (one of my proudest moments came when someone told me, long ago, that a higher-up in the Provost’s office said I was “the biggest asshole on the entire UH campus”).
But there are recognized lines that can’t be crossed—and Matkin and Collin have blown past them here (repeatedly, it would seem). Heaslip and Jones are doing what they do because it’s the right thing to do, protecting the health and safety of a much larger community. No one who’s ever endured anything like this would do it for kicks. It’s all-consuming, scary, and potentially destructive. Amid a horrific pandemic they sought to make themselves, their colleagues, and the students safer. They sought information. They believed in solidarity among the various parts of the campus community.
And they were fired—for asking too many questions, criticizing too many policies, seeking too much information, and telling people at the daily hazards of life on Collin’s campuses. They were fired for their ideas, not deeds. As one would assume, the entire campus has been rocked by this. “If they’re willing to get rid of people like us just because we disagree,” Heaslip said, “then I really fear for the future of the culture at the college.” She added, “It’s getting really bad. I mean, the fear is just out the roof.”
Establishment media loves to write stories about silly leftist campaigns on campus to cancel a speaker or get a safe zone created because they distract from the far more frequent, and damaging, campaigns waged by presidents, provosts, and deans against professors who challenge university administrators on issues of workplace safety or unionization, among other concerns. Fortunately for Heaslip and Jones, the media has been talking to them and covering this story, and the response has been very positive. Their union and the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) have also been on top of this and supporting their efforts to get their jobs back (See FIRE letter to Collin, February 4th).
The rest of us have a role to play here too. If you’re in any way connected to the academic world–like if you sat in a classroom one day–this is an important issue. The email addresses for the Collin College Board of Trustees are below, so contact them to insist that they reinstate Heaslip and Jones. If you’re a tenured professor, or in you’re in a Texas union, you can do more. They don’t have tenure at Collin College so those of us who do can use it on their behalf.
Martin Luther King often said that long after we’ve forgotten the angry words of our enemies, we’ll still remember the silence of our friends. If you can lose a job at which you’ve excelled for years because you got on the wrong side of a college president who refuses to protect the health and safety of his campus, who is aggressively anti-union, and who simply does not respect the idea of Free Speech, then you’re never going to be safe at anytime or place ……