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That claim caught the attention of lawyers for the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, who sent the college a public-records request for all communications from legislators connected with this incident.
Rather than handing over these records, the college retained an outside law firm to appeal the request to the Texas attorney general’s office on the grounds that, because I had mentioned having employment insurance and a lawyer, the college reasonably believed I was on the verge of filing a lawsuit. When that argument didn’t fly — because my saying that I had an attorney did not mean a lawsuit was imminent, or even that a lawsuit was under discussion (it was not) — they then claimed that the records could be withheld because they were covered by attorney-client privilege, since at least one of these communications happened to come from a lawyer. That argument also did not fly.
For four months, from October to January, the college fought FIRE’s request under Texas’s Public Information Act, sending four letters to the attorney general’s office. Finally, on January 22, the Office of the Attorney General of Texas ruled that the college must turn over records of the communications about me between “legislators” and Matkin.
On February 11, Adam Steinbaugh, director of the Individual Rights Defense Program at FIRE, let me know that the requested information would be on his desk by the end of the day.
I was nervous about what I might find out. I am a history professor, a writer, a scholar, a journal editor, an engaged and very vocal citizen — and also a wife, a mother, a daughter, a sister, a church member, a mentor, a friend. And last fall was sheer hell for me. Sheer hell. While I continued to pour my efforts into providing an outstanding education to my students — writing letters of recommendation, offering careful feedback on writing assignments (I spent much more time assessing than they had spent writing), recording a couple of hours of original lecture material and discussions per week, extending deadlines, offering support — I was worn down in a way that I have never been before.
Off the clock, I was caring for an ailing parent undergoing chemotherapy. On the clock, I was demoralized and disheartened by the cruel and callous actions of the college president toward not just me but toward all our faculty. I was sickened by the news of our colleague Iris Meda’s death from Covid-19. And through all of it I was emotionally burdened — certainly without complaint, but not without cost — as so many of my colleagues told me they were counting on me to keep speaking up, to not shrink into silence, to use my sudden public platform as a Collin College professor to call attention to the horrific work environment we have all been enduring for far too long.
That was the fall.
My spring semester started with a written reprimand from human resources over the accuracy of a tweet about a former Collin instructor who had died of Covid-19. The retaliatory warning, coming on the first day of classes, seemed timed to demoralize me. And it worked. I felt mistreated, targeted, harassed, and bullied by my employer — because I was.
So I was very anxious to know: Who were Matkin’s friends in high places? Who were the legislators calling for the suppression of professors’ free speech? What would this tranche of documents reveal?
Well, that “tranche” of records turned out to be nothing more than a single text message from a single state lawmaker, local Rep. Jeff Leach, Republican of Allen, Tex.
One legislator, one contact, one text exchange. That’s it.
Here is the record Collin College fought so hard to conceal from the public:
JEFF LEACH: LD Burnet (sic) is paid with taxpayer dollars, correct?
MATKIN: I’m aware of the situation Jeff and will deal with it. Already on my radar before the current issue. She is definitely paid with taxpayer dollars.
LEACH: Ok cool. I’m getting calls from folks. Not a ton... but a few .. as it is starting to percolate on social media.
MATKIN: My inbox and the board is getting the same. Appreciate you. Good luck in November friend.
And with that disclosure I learned the truth that the college and its outside law firm had worked so hard to keep from all of us professors and from the public at large: The college president has likely been bluffing all along. About everything.
Matkin had no records of a phalanx of friends in high places willing to back him as he retaliated against some professors and tried to bully the rest into a terrified silence. If there were other legislators who weighed in, he apparently has no proof of it and the college has no record of it.
Instead, it looks like the college was mainly trying to protect Matkin himself. In his all-hands email, he had exaggerated the private backlash to my tweet in order to justify his heavy-handed public response. And in the text exchange itself, he revealed that he monitors his faculty for their speech — something to which many of my colleagues can attest.
Instead, I’m guessing what put me on the college president’s “radar” was the same thing that got two of my co-workers fired a couple of weeks ago: objecting to the college’s Covid policies. Along with over 130 other full-time faculty members, I added my signature and statement to the white paper that our colleague Audra Heaslip composed and circulated, while our colleague Suzanne Jones and others worked to organize a Texas Faculty Association chapter to help faculty members continue to speak up about Covid and other issues affecting our safety. For their activism, both Heaslip and Jones were told their contracts would not be renewed in May.
I had also spoken up about the college’s Covid plans last fall. When Matkin wrote an email in August saying that the Covid pandemic “had been blown utterly out of proportion across our nation” by the media and that the numbers were not as high as reported, I emailed him privately to tell him that his statement seemed dismissive of the concerns of all the faculty who had requested an online semester for the safety of the community. “I am sure you did not mean to be unkind,” I wrote, “but the repeated assertions that this disease poses a minuscule risk came across as an implicit condemnation of those who have altered their routines out of concern for it.”
That’s how I landed on Matkin’s radar, along with Heaslip and Jones. He has targeted the three of us for daring to speak out about Covid. Maybe it is just a coincidence that we are all women. Maybe he is working down a list of everyone who signed the petition or who has said a word publicly or privately to contradict the college president, and we just happened to be at the top. Maybe he is making an example of us to continue to terrify the rest of our colleagues into silence and compliance.
Whatever he is doing, I don’t think his approach is going to work for too much longer. The more we faculty members find out about the distance between Matkin’s claims (“contacts and calls from legislators”) and what has actually happened (a text message from a single local representative), the less seriously we are going to take his threats against us for violating the college’s “Core Values.”
Still, the discussion about “taxpayer dollars” is worth unpacking.
Since Matkin was hired in 2015 to preside over our community-college system, his base salary has risen from $315,000 to $400,000. That’s not counting the cash bonuses budgeted for him every year; during the 2019 fiscal year, Matkin’s cash bonus, paid with taxpayer dollars, was $65,000.
Faculty members only recently learned of these cash bonuses, and we have yet to learn the criteria upon which they are based. But I can tell you that $65,000 is more than my base salary now, and I teach at least five courses and around 150 students every semester. This year — my second year of full-time employment at Collin College — I am teaching six courses a semester.
Last fall, while my well-compensated college president was privately threatening to “deal with” me and publicly shaming me via an all-hands email and a statement on the college website, I went on with my work like the professional that I am, never giving my students the least hint that there was anything amiss between me and the college administration, nor offering my students the least bit of criticism about my employer, never mind about any public political figure. That’s because, unlike some people, I’m quite capable of setting aside my personal views in order to do my job, as my student course evaluations well attest. The taxpayers have been well served by my work, and what I do in my free time is my own business.
But what does our community-college president do on the clock to merit his taxpayer-provided annual cash bonus? Are the bonus incentives tied at all to enrollment numbers? If that is in fact the case — and we faculty members are trying to find this out — then Matkin’s persistent minimization of Covid risks and his frankly irrational insistence that we must have face to face classes in the middle of a pandemic would be more explicable, though all the more deplorable.
Either way, those bonuses are “definitely paid with taxpayer dollars” — as are all the retainer fees for all the outside law firms that Collin has employed so far this academic year to fight public-records requests to protect the president from being exposed as having far less power, influence, and political backing than he would like to pretend.
Clearly, though, Matkin has the backing of the Collin College Board of Trustees, to the point where they are apparently willing to sign off on the expense of using multiple private law firms to protect him from scrutiny. Why?
In the process of trying to answer this question for myself, I learned that the longtime chairman of the Collin College Board of Trustees, J. Robert Collins, happens to own (in a living trust) over 100 acres of undeveloped land just a three-minute drive north of Collin College’s newest campus in Farmersville, Tex. Matkin was a huge booster of building the campus in Farmersville (where he also happens to live).
The bond measure for the purchase of land and the construction of that campus passed in 2017. I don’t recall any public discussion at the time regarding whether or not the board chair stood to benefit financially from the construction of a brand-new college campus within spitting distance of his family ranch. I’m not sure anyone was broadly aware of the potential conflict of interest. It didn’t make the papers. But the value of the Collins family ranch has apparently increased significantly over the past four years.
Would those kinds of indirect financial or personal benefits explain why at least some members of the board seem glad to stand behind Matkin’s leadership, continued legal hassles be damned? Again, this is probably the kind of question that a good investigative reporter should pose — someone who isn’t from around here, someone who is good with numbers, and someone who might be able to snag an interview with the college’s chief financial officer at the time these financial decisions were made. Of course, Collin College has gone through three CFOs in the past five years, so it might be difficult to figure out which among them would be the right person to ask. But these questions deserve asking. And the taxpayers deserve answers.
Meanwhile, in the middle of this horrific pandemic, taxpayers absolutely deserve to know if there were any financial incentives for the Collin College president to compel staff to work and faculty members to teach in dangerous conditions this past fall. I am a taxpayer, and I deserve to know that. My colleagues who have been intimidated, disciplined, or fired for speaking out about Covid deserve to know that.
Certainly, Iris Meda’s family deserves to know that.
Collin College, you are on our radar now.