At a Texas Community College, the Attack on Free Speech Is Coming From the Right

Community college professor Michael Phillips spent the past year speaking out against a right-wing “purge” of progressive faculty at his college. Then he was fired.

Administrators at Collin College have used the deliberate lack of tenure to single out and punish faculty who are too outspoken. (Collin College)

For the past year, history professor Michael Phillips has been warning about a right-wing “purge” taking place at Collin College, led by administrators angling to remove progressive voices from the Texas school. Then he himself was purged.

Last month, Phillips, an award-winning professor of history, was called to a meeting about his impending removal from the institution he’d taught at for the past fourteen years. As he recalls, he was offered a deal: he and college leadership would “craft a narrative” that he had left voluntarily, and they’d help him find a job to move on to, giving him a “graceful exit.” He refused. Not long after, he was told he would not be employed come May 15. He’s now the fourth professor to be fired from the public community college in Texas over free speech issues.

The firing of Phillips and his colleagues is first and foremost a story about administrative abuse at Collin College, where administrators have used the deliberate lack of tenure to single out and punish faculty who are too outspoken. But it’s also part of a larger story we’re seeing unfold across the country, of the Right working with increasing ferocity to stamp out what they see as progressivism in education, trampling over free speech rights in the process.

Signs of Trouble

Phillips had been clashing with administrators for some time before he was fired. Phillips immediately butted heads with now president H. Neil Matkin when he was a finalist for the position in 2015. Concerned that Matkin had received degrees from an unaccredited college run by the Worldwide Church of God (now known as Grace Communion International) — described by one former adherent as a “white supremacist doomsday cult” that taught that God approved of slavery and wanted white people to rule the world — he recalls confronting Matkin privately, asking him about his attitudes to matters like interracial dating and evolution.

According to Phillips, Matkin got upset. For Matkin’s part, he’d later complain that Phillips had “come to the conclusion the church was racist and that therefore I was racist.”

Two years later, Phillips authored several op-eds for the Dallas News calling for the removal of Confederate statues in the city, the second one getting the signature of one hundred religious leaders, activists, and scholars, including nine Collin College faculty.

They faced immediate pushback. Suzanne Jones, a professor of education at Collin, was asked by administrators to remove Collin’s name from her signature on the op-ed, according to a lawsuit she later filed. Phillips says he, too, was asked by his campus provost not to use the college’s name, fearing it would hurt the college’s image and make locals feel bad, since their ancestors were Confederates.

“To her, the default face of a Collin College student and a resident of the county was a white face,” he says now. “It didn’t occur to her that black people mattered, and maybe black people wouldn’t think it was a bad thing.”

The next clash came after the 2019 El Paso shooting, whose perpetrator had attended Collin College. Matkin instructed faculty not to talk about the incident, and both Phillips and another faculty member independently recalled Matkin then announcing to those assembled the shooter’s grade point average (a violation of federal law).

Soon after, Phillips was quoted in the Washington Post report on the shooter, mentioning the presence of racist fliers on the Collin campus and the Dallas–Fort Worth region in recent years, fliers whose existence was a matter of public record. Despite viewing the gag order on the subject as unconstitutional — “Professors have a right to talk about matters of public concern,” he says — Phillips had thought he had stayed within its bounds, having refused to discuss the shooter and offering only to talk about the historical context, about which he had written a prominent book. Nevertheless, he recalls being called in by unhappy administrators as a result.

But it was the arrival of the pandemic that sent events hurtling toward their endgame. “We had very cordial correspondence about one issue or another over the years,” former history professor Lora Burnett recalls about her relationship with Matkin. “He never had a cross word for me, and I not to him, until COVID.”

Matkin had taken a distinctly blasé approach to COVID-19, to the point that even he’s since admitted “there were things that I did say early on” that weren’t “terribly helpful.” He claimed the pandemic had been “blown utterly out of proportion,” that reports about it were too “sensational,” that deaths had been “clearly inflated,” and that Texans were “one hundred times more likely” to die in car crashes, which he later acknowledged was not true.

He resisted faculty requests to do remote learning, in line with neighboring institutions, and kept in-person classes going through the 2020 fall semester. A seventy-year-old nursing professor died of the virus a few months after that, not long after one of her students had tested positive. Her family is convinced she caught it while teaching.

According to Phillips, he was admonished for several tweets obliquely critical of the college’s pandemic policy on his personal Twitter account, one suggesting the college didn’t care about its staff’s health and safety, which he was asked to delete. The other described a dream he had of people seated together without masks at a college, wondering if that was the scenario coming in the fall.

The final straw came a year later, when faculty were told by administrators that staff and faculty were forbidden from even recommending to students that they wear masks voluntarily. The reasoning given was Texas governor Greg Abbott’s ban on mask mandates — even though Abbott’s later order banning vaccine mandates “strongly encouraged as a matter of personal responsibility” that Texans abide by various pandemic “mitigation practices.”

Phillips took a photo of the PowerPoint slide outlining the policy and posted it on social media, before objecting to the board of trustees that faculty shouldn’t be withholding critical information from students. Days later, he was given a discipline warning, then told his contract would not be renewed.

“They’re now retaliating against the most vocal, most principled faculty member, and the most vocal supporter of the rest of us who were disciplined,” says Burnett.

Widening the Net

As Burnett’s words suggests, Collin’s clampdown on speech goes well beyond Phillips. Four faculty have lost their jobs now for exercising their First Amendment rights, a gross breach of the principle of academic freedom.

Burnett first entered the crosshairs when a post on her personal social media page became the subject of a right-wing cancel culture campaign. Her tweet calling for the moderator of the 2020 vice presidential debate to “talk over Mike Pence until he shuts his little demon mouth up” was seized on by right-wing media and organizations, leading Republican state representative Jeff Leach to text Matkin, asking if Burnett was “paid with taxpayer dollars.” “I’m aware of the situation Jeff and will deal with it,” Matkin replied, adding, “Appreciate you. Good luck in November friend.”

Burnett further drew Matkin’s ire by tweeting criticisms of the college’s pandemic policies. In February of last year, Leach tweeted out that her firing was “BIG WIN,” unwittingly revealing both Collin leadership’s plans to fire her and that he was apparently privy to them. Later that month, she was informed the college would not be renewing her contract. She’s since won a $70,000 settlement from the college plus payment of her legal fees.

Audra Heaslip was a humanities professor who had worked at the college for fifteen years, nearly ten of them as full-time faculty. She says she felt “morally compelled” to bring up staff concerns about COVID policy in 2020, when people started texting her, asking her to speak up.

“There was already an environment of fear where you don’t ever ask questions or speak up against anything,” she says.

Heaslip recalls putting together a document of peer-reviewed research on the virus in summer 2020 and asking people to add their comments to it. She hoped it would start a “conversation” — instead, she says, Matkin took it as a hostile move, referring to the document as a set of demands. In January 2021, she was told the president had declined to renew her contract.

Suzanne Jones, who had earlier run afoul of administrators for signing her name to Phillips’s op-ed against Confederate monuments, also sparked anger by pushing back against the school’s lax COVID policy in a Facebook post. But Jones says she suspects it was being on the faculty council when it wrote a resolution asking for safety precautions at the start of the pandemic that really drew administrators’ ire. She was accused by administrators of going outside “normal channels of communication” and learned the same month she, too, would not have her contract renewed, ending a twenty-year career at the college.

It wasn’t always constitutionally protected speech that was the issue. Photography professor Byrd Williams had been at Collin for nearly thirty years when he says leadership moved to push him out. “They started getting rid of all the people who had an opinion, plus the people in the highest pay rate,” he says. “They told me we can hire two people for what we pay you.” Meanwhile, English professor Barbara Hanson was denied a multiyear contract for mysterious reasons, with school officials citing her application for two administrative positions at the college and cherry-picked student evaluations.

Then there was the Texas Faculty Association (TFA), the closest thing to a higher education union in the right-to-work state — an advocacy group, rather than a labor organization with the right to strike. The ousted faculty note that Jones and Heaslip were both local officers of the Collin chapter of TFA, as was Phillips, who stepped in when the latter was removed. Jones’s “misuse of the college’s name” on a website associated with the TFA was specifically mentioned by Matkin as one of the reasons she was pushed out.

“He certainly didn’t choose us out of faculty council, because there were a lot of people on there who were a lot more vocal,” says Jones. “To me, it looks like they don’t want this advocacy group or union existing.”

“That’s By Design”

Matkin is an obvious lightning rod for outrage over this spate of firings. Besides his conservative connections and the leading role he played in ousting the various professors, Matkin had stirred up accusations of unprofessionalism through incidents like revealing the El Paso shooter’s GPA, and his tendency to make offensive anatomical jokes about African Americans. But that’s not the whole story.

“It seems like the root of the problem is in the board of trustees,” says Heaslip.

“The leadership has a very pronounced conservative Republican slant,” says Burnett.

Trustees include executives from health insurance company Cigna, corporate consulting firms, and a medical technology firm. But ousted faculty typically point to Bob Collins, whose reelection endorsement page as trustee lists the Collin County GOP, Collin County Conservative Republicans, and the conservative organizations of We the People Allen and McKinney First PAC, which says its membership dues go toward “fund[ing] the conservative movement locally.” It also lists a collection of Republican state legislators, including Jeff Leach, the lawmaker who had pushed Matkin to act against Burnett for her tweet criticizing Pence.

Collins, a founding trustee of the college, made clear in a 2015 speech why it uses the system of rolling contracts for its faculty, which have made it so easy for administrators to push those like Phillips out.

“Collin College does not have tenure. That’s by design,” he said:

Where you have tenure is where you tend to have a self-promoting faculty. So, with the tenure system, you tend to have the ultraliberal, anti-capitalism socialistic professors want to hire more just like them. So, we don’t have that here. We have a contract system.

Collins would later defend Matkin when he placed a bowl on his head to mimic a yarmulke and called himself Cary Israel, the previous, Jewish president of Collin College. “It’s a shame we can’t do things like that and not have people get offended,” Collins said at the time. Yet it appears both Collins and Matkin’s defense of free speech only goes so far: while racist jokes may not cross the line for them, progressive politics, pandemic mitigation, and workplace organizing do.

Right-Wing Crusade

The Collin College saga is a free speech and First Amendment scandal. It’s a violation of academic freedom. It’s an incident of union busting. And it’s just one case of many of these basic rights being trampled at educational institutions across the country, even as right-wing media and organizations point to campus protests as an authoritarian threat — while ignoring or even cheering on flagrant abuses by college administrators.

The biggest loser is the college itself, which has not only seen tens of thousands of dollars wasted on settlements with fired staff but has lost faculty who were recognized both within and outside the college for their quality of teaching.

“We’re really concerned about the students at the college, because most of the people that they let go are the longtime professors,” says Heaslip.

And now at the center of it is Michael Phillips, who Lora Burnett calls the “William Lloyd Garrison of Collin College” and who is joining his ousted colleagues in filing a lawsuit against the college. Yet even if he wins, as Burnett points out, the threatening cloud the college’s leadership has conjured above the faculty’s head will remain.

“If they can get rid of Michael Phillips, who else is going to dare raise their voice?”