Collin College has pushed out a third professor for questionable reasons — the latest in a string of firings that faculty members say are evidence of a hostile work environment.
H. Neil Matkin, president of the community-college district in Texas, has garnered a reputation for dealing harshly with members of the faculty who criticize the administration. He also faced a firestorm of outrage after he minimized the Covid-19 death of a professor.
The history professor Lora D. Burnett was perhaps Matkin’s most outspoken critic. She lost her job on Thursday.
On Twitter, Burnett complained that she was apparently being let go because of “mean tweets.” She posted screenshots of a letter from the college’s human-resources department, which informed her that her employment contract expires on May 14 and would not be renewed.
In the letter, the college scolded Burnett for behavior including “insubordination, making private personnel issues public that impair the college’s operations, and personal criticisms of co-workers, supervisors, and/or those who merely disagree with you.”
But the college, located in a conservative Dallas suburb, was faulted by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a free-speech advocacy group, for how it had treated Burnett — particularly when it failed to stick up for its professor following a controversial statement she made on social media.
In a tweet in October, Burnett ridiculed the then vice president Mike Pence’s debate performance, and urged the moderator “to talk over Mike Pence until he shuts his little demon mouth up.”
The tweet drew conservative anger and finger-pointing to the college, but professors across the country say controversial things all the time. And the typical response from public colleges and universities like Collin is to emphasize their employees’ First Amendment right of free speech.
Matkin took a different route, and criticized Burnett in a collegewide email. Although he didn’t identify Burnett by name, he faulted an unnamed faculty member for attacking Mike Pence through “hateful, vile, and ill-considered Twitter posts.” Burnett has also criticized Collin in pieces written for The Chronicle Review.
On Thursday, after losing her job, Burnett tweeted:
I mean, y’all know I can be The Worst on Twitter. But here’s the wonderful thing: citizens cannot be punished by the government for protected speech, even when the government happens to be our employer.
Can they try? Sure.
Can they get away with it? well, we will see.
— Dr. Lora Burnett (@LDBurnett) February 25, 2021
Neither Burnett nor the college could immediately be reached for comment on Thursday evening.
In recent weeks, two other Collin College faculty members, Audra Heaslip and Suzanne Jones, also lost their jobs, despite stellar track records of teaching there.
Both professors were organizers with the college’s chapter of the Texas Faculty Association, which acts like a union but is not recognized for collective bargaining under Texas law.
Heaslip had previously written a critique of the college’s Covid-19 reopening plan. More than 100 other faculty members signed on in support of the safety concerns that Heaslip had identified.