Lora Burnett wasn’t surprised when Collin College let her go on Thursday, but she was disappointed.
The history professor has been locked in a cold war with school administrators since October, when she posted a mean tweet about Mike Pence’s “little demon mouth” during the vice-presidential debate. Since then, Burnett said the school has retaliated against her because administrators disagree with her social media posts.
The college decided to not renew her contract, making her last day May 14.
“I may be an absolute twerp on Twitter, but that doesn’t matter,” Burnett said. “My colleagues and I still have the right to express our views.”
Burnett’s dust-up with the school is the latest episode in a battle over speech at Collin College. Many critics have accused the school of abandoning its duty to protect professors’ freedom of speech. Others are amazed: For a campus that’s attracted such bad press lately, it sure seems hellbent on making more.
Last week, the Observer reported that Burnett has at least one enemy in high places: state Rep. Jeff Leach, a Plano Republican. A record published by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) showed the lawmaker had complained about Burnett in a text message to Collin College district President Neil Matkin.
After the record was publicized, Leach seemed to celebrate Burnett’s firing on social media. When she explained she was still employed, he replied with an ominous gif of a ticking clock. Nine days later, Burnett was informed that her contract wouldn't be renewed.
She’s not alone. Two other longtime professors, Suzanne Jones and Audra Heaslip, were let go in January, in part because they’d challenged the school’s COVID-19 policies. They’d also been involved in forming the local chapter of a non-bargaining teachers’ union.
“It’s like they’re doing a purge right now; I mean, they have fired three women in the past month,” Burnett said. “And all of us have a couple of things in common: We criticized the school’s COVID plans and we disclosed how the school responded to our criticisms on social media.
“There’s just something whack about three women getting canned right now,” she added.
In an emailed statement, a Collin College spokeswoman declined to comment “out of respect for our employees’ privacy.”
Burnett thinks the school is determined to silence outspoken female professors. Some male faculty similarly use social media to express their political opinions and have criticized the school's COVID-19 policies; none have been fired.
The pandemic has been hard on female professionals, who have been forced out of the workplace at a disproportionate rate. In September, four times as many women as men left the labor force, largely because of child care concerns, according to the Center for American Progress.
It’s “chilling” that the college would fire three educators during the middle of a pandemic that has cost both students’ and professors’ lives, Burnett said.
Many in academia expressed support for Burnett after she posted a screenshot of her termination email. Administrators told her she was fired, in part, for “insubordination.”
“Unbelievably pissed about this, as everyone should be. You’re not a burden to your campus community, or an ‘insubordinate’ to be tamed—you’re an asset to it!” Champlain College associate writing professor Sheila Liming said in a tweet.
Unbelievably pissed about this, as everyone should be.— Sheila Liming (@seeshespeak) February 26, 2021
You’re not a burden to your campus community, or an “insubordinate” to be tamed—you’re an asset to it!
Others were similarly outraged.
“Hey Collin College is this cancel culture???? Unbelievable,” tweeted William Adler, an associate professor of political science at Northeastern Illinois University.
Hey Collin College is this cancel culture???? Unbelievable.— William D. Adler (@williamadler78) February 25, 2021
Collin College’s board of trustees has an obligation to defend professors’ free speech, said Adam Steinbaugh, a lawyer with FIRE. Each day they refuse to do so will further lower the temperature at the school and “cast a chilling effect.”
Members of the board did not return the Observer’s request for comment.
FIRE has been closely monitoring the school’s actions, Steinbaugh said, even naming it one of the 10 worst colleges for free speech. It’s apparent that while Collin College leadership understands it has First Amendment obligations, it’s not interested in upholding them. Even those who dislike Burnett’s opinions should fight for her right to express them, he added.
“Freedom of speech is a neutral rule, and the rules you apply now to the speech that you dislike will be applied to the speech that you do like,” Steinbaugh said.
As Matkin said in his text to Leach, Burnett had been “on [his] radar” for some time. Still, she speculates the final straw may have been when she hired an attorney who sent the school a letter demanding it preserve pertinent records.
After that, Burnett said Matkin deleted his personal Twitter account.
A protest in support of Heaslip and Jones had been planned for Feb. 23 but was pushed to Tuesday to coincide with a rescheduled Collin College board meeting. Now, demonstrators will demand that all three professors be reinstated.
Burnett hopes public pressure lodged against Collin College sparks a change in the school's culture. If the college refuses to renew their contracts, she fears faculty will “never speak up again.”
“For every one of us who finds the courage to talk to a reporter, there are probably 20 or 30 of us who wish they could speak up but are scared to death of being fired like I’ve been fired,” she said. “And if I’m going to go through this, I want it to count for them — that’s all.”
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