Days After Settling a Lawsuit, a Texas College Ousts Another Outspoken Professor
Less than a week after Collin College agreed to pay $70,000 to a former professor fired for questionable reasons, yet another faculty member at the Texas community college is out of a job.
The latest casualty: history professor Michael Phillips, who taught at Collin for 14 years, and says he had “overwhelmingly positive” evaluations from students.
“I have students say I inspired them,” Phillips told The Chronicle. “They hated history until they came into my class.”
Last week, the college agreed to pay former professor Lora D. Burnett $70,000, plus legal fees, to end a First Amendment lawsuit the instructor filed after her termination. Burnett lost her job after criticizing former vice president Mike Pence on Twitter.
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Less than a week after Collin College agreed to pay $70,000 to a former professor fired for questionable reasons, yet another faculty member at the Texas community college is going to be out of a job.
Michael Phillips will need to find a new job after his contract expires on May 15.
The latest casualty: Michael Phillips, a history professor who has taught at Collin for 14 years and who said he had “overwhelmingly positive” evaluations from students.
“I have students say I inspired them,” said Phillips, who will need to find a new job after his current contract expires on May 15. “They hated history until they came into my class.”
Last week the college agreed to pay $70,000, plus legal fees, to Lora D. Burnett to end a First Amendment lawsuit the former professor filed after her termination. Burnett lost her job after criticizing former Vice President Mike Pence on Twitter.
In that case, her legal counsel wrote at the time of the settlement, the college had “effectively chosen to concede the lawsuit by offering judgment in favor of Burnett,” although college leaders still publicly deny liability.
Nevertheless, Collin’s apparent purge of faculty critics continues.
Last April, The Chronicle profiled H. Neil Matkin, the college’s controversial president. Matkin, who enjoys strong support from some Republican state lawmakers, has dismissed the dangers of Covid-19, and some former and current employees say the president quashes any form of faculty dissent, while pushing out employees who dare to challenge his authority.
At the beginning of fall semester, Phillips gave his students their first assignment: Write a paper on the history of pandemics and epidemics in North America.
Shortly before Burnett’s firing last year, the college pushed out two other professors who had tried to organize a chapter of the Texas Faculty Association, which acts like a union but is not recognized for collective bargaining under Texas law.
Phillips’s termination makes clear that the college’s leadership has not changed its tactics, despite the cost to both its pocketbook and its national reputation.
In a statement, the college said it is “routine” practice for some faculty employment contracts to not be renewed.
“Out of respect for the privacy of our faculty members and their respective current and future employment, it is our practice not to publicly comment on such specific matters,” the college wrote. “While each year not all faculty contracts are renewed, the college extends well wishes to these colleagues in future pursuits.”
As in the previous instances, the college’s latest professor to be ousted said he lost his job for speaking out about a topic that the college’s leadership didn’t like.
At the beginning of fall semester, Phillips gave his students their first assignment: Write a paper on the history of pandemics and epidemics in North America, from the time of Christopher Columbus to Covid-19.
A Death in the Family
Collin College faculty lost one of their own to Covid-19 in November 2020. Iris Meda, a nursing professor, died from the virus, and her family said she caught it in the classroom.
But in Texas, Republican politicians have forbidden public colleges from requiring the wearing of face masks.
When giving students that first fall assignment, Phillips informed them that anti-mask sentiment during the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic hindered America’s recovery from that crisis. And Phillips also told his students about a Houston-area resident, the recipient of a Purple Heart in the military, who died from a preventable illness because he couldn’t get a hospital bed.
That decorated veteran died because local hospitals were overwhelmed, and their beds completely full, after a surge in Covid-19 patients.
Phillips urged his students to consider wearing masks, even though the college didn’t require them to, and to “really think about the person next to you, and think about the consequences of your actions.”
Some students in Phillips’s class were unhappy with his recommending masks, and they complained to the administration. The administration had previously warned Phillips and other faculty that they could not recommend masks.
On Twitter, Phillips posted an excerpt from an administration PowerPoint presentation that specifically banned even the suggestion of masks. College records show that Phillips was disciplined for that tweet, with administrators writing in a discipline form that he had publicly posted the information “without context.”
Phillips signed the form on August 27, while disputing its findings and writing that faculty have the right of free speech, as well as the right to speak on matters of public concern.
On Monday, Phillips announced on Twitter that he’d been fired.
“I was called in to meet with my associate dean and dean and was issued a discipline warning for my speech in the classroom and my social media posts revealing the gag rule,” Phillips wrote on Twitter.
The former professor wrote that he was later informed that his teaching contract would not be renewed. After that, he sat down for a meeting with the college provost and senior vice president.
“The institution’s senior vice president proposed that I could make a ‘graceful exit’ from the college by working with the administration to ‘construct a narrative’ around my departure,” Phillips wrote on Twitter. “He suggested that perhaps I could say I was leaving voluntarily.” College officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Phillips’s accusation.
In return, Phillips said, the college promised it would help him find a new job. But Phillips said he refused to lie about the circumstances surrounding his departure.
“They have created an atmosphere of total fear and distrust,” Phillips told The Chronicle on Monday. “And it really hampers the education of our students. Faculty are afraid to broach certain subjects. They know now that the administration will be reaching into the classroom. There are forbidden subjects, like talking about masks.”
Burnett, the former professor who is receiving a payout from the college, told The Chronicle she is furious about Phillips’s dismissal, as well as what he said was an attempt by administrators to hide the true reasons for his departure.
“That is utterly morally depraved,” Burnett said. “That is unbecoming of an institution of higher education, supported by taxpayer dollars.”
In her lawsuit, Burnett was represented by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, which advocates for free-speech rights at colleges nationwide. FIRE is representing Phillips as well. The organization told The Chronicle that it “will vigorously defend Mr. Phillips’s constitutionally protected right to teach and speak on matters of public concern.”
On Twitter, Phillips defended his freedom of expression and said he deserved to have his teaching contract renewed. “The news that I have been fired is heartbreaking to me,” he wrote. “Teaching, mentoring, and getting to know my students and watching them flower into full adulthood has been one of the most rewarding parts of my life.”
Back in 2017, Phillips’s outspokenness led to tensions with his bosses at Collin College. Phillips has an expertise in race relations, and he led a campaign to pressure the city of Dallas to take down its Confederate monuments.
Collin College administrators were uncomfortable with Phillips’s taking a stand on the Confederate-statue issue, the professor told The Chronicle last year.
Phillips recalled an ominous conversation he had at the time with Matkin, the president.
“He just kind of smirked, and that’s when he said, ‘I just want to make sure you can keep doing your job.’”
In a written response to questions, Matkin told The Chronicle last year that he did not recall “this purported conversation from 2017” and that he had never threatened the professor. Despite Phillips’s “recurring ad hominem campaigns,” Matkin said he had approved renewals of his employment contracts.
After this spring, however, Phillips’s contract is not being renewed.