One should never fight a multifront war by choice, the old wisdom goes, but progressives in North Texas don’t have much choice in the matter. School dramas have sprouted like bluebonnets across the Dallas–Fort Worth area these past eight months. Last August, the first Black principal of Colleyville Heritage High School was placed on administrative leave after some parents accused him of teaching and promoting “critical race theory.” In Irving, a teacher saw her contract terminated last month after she protested the removal of rainbow “safe space” stickers at her high school. And late last month in Southlake, where a top administrator with the Carroll Independent School District told educators last fall to offer “opposing” perspectives when teaching the Holocaust, a “non-disparagement” clause was added to teacher contracts to prevent them from publicly criticizing the school district and its employees.
On the last Tuesday of April, many of the usual protesting suspects were split between options. They could head to the McKinney ISD’s board meeting to provide a counterbalance to right-wing activists calling for a purge of books from the libraries. Or they could attend a board of trustees meeting at Collin College, a community college in the northern suburbs of Dallas that serves more than 56,000 students.
At Collin, protesters were rallying to oppose the college’s decision not to renew the contract of outspoken history professor Michael Phillips for the 2022–23 academic year. It was not the first time the college had been accused of dismissing a professor for criticizing the school, labor organizing, or publicly wading into political controversies. For two years running, Collin has been named one of the top ten worst colleges in the United States for freedom of speech by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), an advocacy group that defends the First Amendment rights of educators and students on both the right and left.
Unlike some community colleges in Texas, Collin does not offer tenure—something state leaders such as Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick would like to see at all state universities and colleges, because it makes it easier to fire professors for stepping out of line. In 2015, one Collin trustee, Bob Collins, told conservative groups that the lack of tenure was designed to prevent “ultraliberal, anti-capitalism, socialistic professors” from becoming entrenched at the college and hiring more of their own. In the last two academic years, at least four faculty members have learned their contracts would not be renewed for the following academic year and claimed their First Amendment rights were being violated.
In 2020, history professor Lora Burnett tweeted during a vice presidential debate that the moderator needed to “to talk over Mike Pence until he shuts his little demon mouth up.” State representative Jeff Leach, who represents a Plano district the college serves, subsequently texted Neil Matkin, Collin’s president, asking if Burnett was being paid with taxpayer dollars. Matkin replied that she was, and that he would “deal with it.” When Burnett’s contract wasn’t renewed at the end of the school year, she sued the school on First Amendment grounds and settled this past January for $70,000 plus attorney’s fees, though Collin College did not admit liability.
In February 2021, the school’s senior leadership overruled a committee’s recommendation to retain Audra Heaslip and Suzanne Jones, who were two of the three officers of the Collin College chapter of the Texas Faculty Association (a union without negotiating powers, since Texas law forbids public employees from collective bargaining). The two professors had been critical of the school’s COVID-19 policies during the pandemic. Heaslip had helped draft a resolution signed by more than one hundred faculty members expressing concern about the resumption of in-person classes; shortly after it circulated, Matkin sent an email to the trustees contending that the “effects of this pandemic have been blown utterly out of proportion across our nation.” Jones filed suit against the college in September, also claiming it had violated her First Amendment rights.
Phillips, who has taught for fourteen years at Collin and is now the VP of its TFA chapter, learned in late January that his contract at the school would not be renewed. In March, he too filed suit. Phillips had been called out multiple times by school officials in recent years for his outspokenness. In 2017, administrators of the college summoned him to a meeting after Phillips cosigned an op-ed in the Dallas Morning News (which Jones had also signed) in favor of removing Confederate monuments from public spaces in North Texas; like the other signers who were professors, he included his school affiliation. A provost and dean warned Phillips to avoid conveying the impression that his views represented those of Collin College. In 2019, an associate dean called Phillips into a “constructive feedback” session after he talked to a reporter about the history of white resentment in Dallas for a story about the white-nationalist former Collin College student who gunned down 23 in El Paso. The school had told faculty members to direct all calls about the shooting to its press team; Phillips contends he told the reporter not to mention his school affiliation in the story and was speaking as a private citizen, not as an employee of Collin College.
Like Heaslip and Jones, Phillips was also critical of Collin’s COVID policies. In August 2021, he was disciplined for posting on social media a picture of a slide presented to faculty that said professors could not recommend students wear masks or socially distance in classrooms. (At press time, Collin College’s public relations team had not granted an interview about the lawsuits and the professors’ dismissals.)
An hour before the April 26 board meeting, Phillips and about twenty protesters—including members of the Texas branch of the American Federation of Teachers, Democratic Socialists of America, and the gun-safety nonprofit Moms Demand Action—gathered in the parking lot in front of the main entrance to the education center. The history professor’s supporters, clustered around a speaker system, had been advised to wear red; some donned shirts reading “Y’allidarity.” Phillips opened his remarks by thanking his supporters, then by indirectly reprimanding them. “Some people have called me brave for speaking out. I’m uncomfortable being called brave. Ida B. Wells was brave,” he said, referencing the investigative journalist and early civil rights leader. “But I realized if I stayed silent for firings for constitutionally protected speech, I could not say Ida’s name without burning in shame.”
In keeping with the academic setting, other speakers offered literary and historical analogies to Phillips’s situation, with the McCarthy era emerging as a popular choice. One speaker, Leslie Cunningham, told a story about her uncle, a professor of Chinese, who lost his job during the Red Scare. She compared his plight to that of the Collin professors whose contracts had not been renewed. “I’m glad we don’t have a blacklist yet,” she said. “Could it happen? I don’t think I’m being crazy when I say I’m worried about it.”
As time for the board meeting neared, the group headed inside, where the nine members of the Collin College board were already seated in a semicircular array flanked by two projector screens. The protesters filled the left wing of the auditorium. Law enforcement officers had been stationed at the front and back of the room. When a Phillips supporter loudly added the professor’s name into the end of the Pledge of Allegiance—“and liberty and justice for all, including Dr. Phillips”—an officer told him to behave.
In recent years, the board has bifurcated public-comment periods at its meetings: while anyone can comment on agenda items early in meetings, commenting on non-agenda items—in this case, Phillips’s firing—is only allowed toward the end. Before they could speak, Phillips’s supporters had to sit through an hour and a half of standard bureaucratic minutiae. The board commended a student group, approved a contract bid to help clear a snake-ridden wooded enclave on campus, and voted to add more welding booths to meet increased student demand. It was as if the board had said to the protestors, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will bore you to death before you have your right to say it.”
Once the public comment period finally opened, some of the protesters had left. But plenty remained, including a logic professor at UT-Arlington who, when his name was called, breezed past the mic stand from which he was supposed to address the board and stood in the center of the room, directly in front of Matkin. When he was asked to move and refused, he was escorted by law enforcement out of the room, yelling about the “symbolization” of the board claiming to respect free speech and shunting commenters off to a side mic.
Others made more of their allotted time. Seven speakers read comments they said came from current college employees too afraid to publicly criticize the administration for restricting speech. Suzanne Jones, the former professor, accused the school of targeting unions. A Collin College graduate, Valerie Adams of Richardson, sardonically commended the school for dropping “Community” from its name in 2007 because “its actions over the last several years do not reflect the community it claims to so proudly serve.” A retired Collin College employee, Kim Parker Nyman, took aim at Matkin and the board by telling a story from her days as a faculty member at a college outside Texas. When a colleague “took [her] to task” for wearing a cross necklace—saying it might offend students—Nyman said she had been lucky that her “ultraliberal, secular, humanist dean” had defended her right to free expression.
When Phillips’s turn came, he led with his own reference to McCarthyism. “We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty,” he began, quoting the journalist Edward R. Murrow’s dressing down of the senator. Phillips noted that while many teachers had lost their livelihoods during the Red Scare, history had judged them kindly, whereas it did not look favorably upon censors. As he spoke, his supporters stood up and lined up behind him, one by one; it might have been an “I am Spartacus” moment had any of them been currently employed at the school. Matkin and the board members remained stoic and stone-faced.
Later, in the hallway, I asked Phillips what the point of showing up to the board meeting was. I could understand the relief of being able to address the board outside a decorous courtroom, but surely he knew the protest wasn’t going to sway the board? He told me he hadn’t expected to be listened to by the trustees; his goal was to get other faculty members to feel comfortable speaking up. “This is more a way to communicate to the faculty as a whole,” he told me. “When these battles generally happen, it’s one professor standing against a powerful institution, and hopefully we’ve created an oasis where people don’t feel by themselves.”
The board, in its own way, had acknowledged other Collin professors during the proceedings. Before the public comment period opened, five were honored as finalists for an Outstanding Professor of the Year award—including one of the administrators who’d summoned Phillips into a meeting after the op-ed about removing Confederate monuments. A slideshow displayed feedback from students who had nominated the educators: some were praised for “facilitating conversations outside the classroom,” being “open-minded,” or “listening to student’s opinions.”
As part of the selection process, each nominated professor also had to submit a favorite quote. One had chosen a famous dictum from the philosopher and Holocaust survivor Hannah Arendt that had a strange resonance on this particular evening: “There are no dangerous thoughts; thinking itself is dangerous.”