'Suffocating': Why a Black Professor Quit Collin College

Courtesy of Kimberly O'Neil
Amid a string of controversies at Collin College, Kimberly O'Neil is the latest professor to sound the alarm.
On Kimberly O’Neil’s first day of work at Collin College in August 2014, she was at a big meeting for adjunct faculty members. As she sat in the political science room, a full-time professor approached her, she said. “Oh, a Black person,” O’Neil recalls her saying. “We can finally talk about civil rights.”

If it was meant to be a joke, O’Neil wasn’t laughing. It’s just one instance out of a litany of racist and bigoted conduct she says she experienced during her time as a political science professor at Collin College. After years of similar occurrences, she decided in March to resign.

As a former government executive, O’Neil said her work investigating and monitoring compliance on equal opportunity laws appears on federal records. She’s uniquely poised to understand that employees of color are treated differently at Collin College. So are immigrants with thick accents or those who practice certain religions.

“We’re not just dealing with bad behavior. We’re really dealing with something systemic,” O’Neil said, adding, “I know it’s not only happening to me.

“It is suffocating,” she continued. “It is absolutely suffocating at Collin College.”

Since last fall, Collin College has attracted a string of bad press. Four female professors say they were let go in violation of their rights to free speech and due process. Many condemned the school for its less-than-transparent handling of COVID-19 on campus.

O’Neil’s case is somewhat different: Her multi-year contract had already been approved, and she left on her own accord. Still, some say it’s a variation on a disturbing theme of a college in crisis.

Beginning in 2015, O’Neil says, she was harassed by a female administrative professional. Instances of passive-aggressive behavior soon snowballed, she said.

If O’Neil closed the door to the adjunct office, the administrative professional would open it. If O’Neil wore perfume, the woman would say it was “too loud.” If O’Neil warmed up her lunch, the woman would complain the room needed airing out. Another time, O’Neil coughed, and the woman came in with Lysol.

“She never did this to anyone else,” O’Neil said. “If this was just her behavior and maybe she’s a germophobe, honestly, it wouldn’t have bothered me. But she only did it with me.”

Eventually, it got so bad that others began to notice. O’Neil said two of her white colleagues offered to vouch for her should she file a complaint, which she subsequently did.

O’Neil was named outstanding associate faculty member of the year in 2017, and afterward, she nabbed a full-time teaching position. The harassment even waned for a time, in part because O’Neil did her best to avoid the building where her harrasser worked.

“Everybody deserves better than what Collin College is presenting right now." – Kimberly O'Neil, former Collin College professor

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Then in 2019, O’Neil and other professors had gathered to choose which classes they wanted for the following semester. When it was her turn, O’Neil made her pick, and one of her colleagues shot back: “You bitch! I wanted that.”

O’Neil said no one came to her defense, including her associate dean, so she had to stick up for herself. Afterward, that dean offered to mentor her on a weekly basis — a proposal that angered O’Neil. Too often, Black women are over-mentored, she said.

“I was the youngest Black woman to be appointed as city manager in this country," she said. "I don’t need to be mentored by an associate dean because someone called me a bitch when my work is on federal record because of this exact thing."

O’Neil isn’t the only Collin College employee with allegations of racism. In April, the Allen American reported that an Asian administrator had accused a school provost of racial discrimination and retaliation.

Collin College’s district President Neil Matkin has also been accused of racist behavior. One time, he placed a bowl on his head to imitate his Jewish predecessor, according to The Chronicle of Higher Education. He’d also once allegedly “joked” that he couldn’t tell two of the school’s Black deans apart.

Many of the school’s employees of color take offense to such indecorous "humor."

“The problem is the poor behavior that people use in a joking way, it’s never realized that it’s not a joke — that it’s just offensive and disrespectful and discriminatory,” O’Neil said.

When asked for comment, Collin College spokeswoman Marisela Cadena-Smith said via email the "college elects not to participate in this article."

The final straw for O’Neil was the way the school handled the COVID-19 crisis.

As someone dealing with the long-term effects of a COVID infection herself, she said her anxiety spiked after learning another teacher, Iris Meda, had died from the disease. Until then, O'Neil had no idea that employees weren't being told about coronavirus cases on campus. But O’Neil ultimately decided to leave after witnessing the “disgusting” way that leadership dealt with a student struggling with COVID-related personal issues.

Although she loved her job, O’Neil believes the school has a long way to go to providing a safe work environment for professors of color. As of now, it also lacks diversity in its hiring practices, she said; before she left, she was the only full-time faculty member of color across five disciplines that fall under one associate dean on one campus.

O'Neil believes Collin College should bring in an independent diversity, equity and inclusion group to evaluate its practices, policies and approach. The school does great things, but it can’t realize its full potential if it’s marred by racism and bigotry behind the scenes, she said.

It also can’t uphold its “students first” philosophy if faculty and staff aren't being properly cared for, O’Neil said. She hopes that sharing her story will ultimately help the remaining professors, who “deserve better.”

“I just want it fixed. I just want it fixed for the people. Fix it for the students, fix it for the faculty and fix it for the staff. Fix it for the taxpayers,” O’Neil said. “Everybody deserves better than what Collin College is presenting right now.”