Education

Pressure Mounting: Academic Groups Rally Behind Latest Professor Let Go by Collin College

Several academic groups have written in support of Dr. Michael Phillips.
Several academic groups have written in support of Dr. Michael Phillips. Mike Brooks
History professor Michael Phillips encouraged students to wear masks in class amid the coronavirus pandemic. It may seem like sound advice to many, but he claims it became one of the reasons Collin College effectively fired him late last month.

Since then, several academic organizations have issued the institution a steady stream of blistering condemnations. On Thursday, the executive director of the East Texas Historical Association (ETHA) published the latest denouncement in a scathing open letter.

Academic freedom and freedom of speech are integral parts of America’s representative democracy and higher education system, the letter reads.

“Without either of these crucial underpinnings the framework of both orders will crumble,” it continues. “Collin College, a public institution of higher learning, has appallingly violated these indispensable rights in its inexcusable dismissal of Dr. Michael Phillips.” Several groups have penned similar letters, including the American Historical Association, Texas Faculty Association and Academic Freedom Alliance, among others.

In addition, a number of Texas historians have petitioned the agency that gives accreditation to Collin College for an investigation into the school’s compliance with its academic freedom provisions.

It is possible that Phillips was denied reappointment for good reasons, they wrote, even though he’s an accomplished scholar who was recently named educator of the year by ETHA.

“But the dismissal of such a respected historian raises the prospect that faculty at Collin College are evaluated on the basis of deference to university leaders and whether their public statements match the political outlook of administrators,” the letter continues. “Accordingly, we have grave concerns about the wisdom of any of our graduates working at Collin College, and about the impact on the content of history courses taken by possible student transfers to our institution from Collin College.”

Speaking with the Observer, Phillips says the outpouring of support from academics and free speech advocates has been “remarkable.”

“These are people who are scholars, top minds in various fields and they can see what’s going on here,” he said. “They can see a full-on assault on the First Amendment. They can see the threat that what’s going on at Collin College poses to higher education everywhere.”

This isn’t the first time the school has made headlines after professors claimed they were fired in violation of their constitutional rights.

Last year, the American Association of University Professors launched an investigation into Collin College’s dismissal of two female professors. Both former faculty members later sued the school, with one accepting its offer to pay her $70,000 and attorneys’ fees just days before Phillips announced his own contract nonrenewal.

Earlier this month, Collin College was named one of the nation’s 10 worst colleges for free speech for the second year in a row.

“I entered into this as a fight over free speech, and I will continue to fight for free speech.” – Dr. Michael Phillips

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Pressure is mounting to reinstate Phillips, with one Change.org petition attracting nearly 2,000 signatures as of Thursday afternoon. Launched by local non-bargaining union chapter Collin TFA, the petition lauds Phillips as an award-winning professor who pushed to protect the health of students, colleagues and the broader community.

Phillips wrote the critically acclaimed book White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity, and Religion in Dallas, 18412001. He claims Collin College was displeased with his efforts to remove Confederate monuments in Dallas, in addition to his criticism of the school's coronavirus policies.

Despite the college demanding that faculty refrain from recommending masks, Phillips encouraged students to wear them and assigned a paper about the history of epidemics and pandemics in North America. Shortly after, he says, he received a discipline warning for his classroom speech and certain social media posts.

But the way Collin College sees it, the school never fired any current professor; rather, they merely declined to renew Phillips' contract, spokesperson Marisela Cadena-Smith said by email. The college can decide to end its relationship with faculty at the end of their contract, she continued, and board policies “promote the free expression of ideas of all individuals, including the academic freedom of faculty, which contribute to creativity, learning, and greater understanding.”

Cadena-Smith also included a graphic of the college's 10-step renewal process for multi-year contracts.
Still, critics believe the school is using the protocol to part ways with professors with differing political views. After Phillips announced his own departure, Collin TFA posted a 2015 video of board member Bob Collins explaining the reasons for not offering tenure.

“Collin College does not have tenure. That's by design," he said at the time. "Where you have tenure is where you tend to have a self-promoting faculty. So, with the tenure system, the ultra-liberal, anti-capitalism, socialistic professors want to hire more just like them, so we don’t have that here."
Phillips argues that Collin College isn’t interested in the quality of education because the administration seems intent on pushing out professors who disagree with them. Faculty report it’s a scary place to work, he continued, and teachers have to watch what they say, a fact that’s poisoning the classroom environment.

It hasn’t always been easy, Phillips added. Still, he’s not giving up: “I entered into this as a fight over free speech, and I will continue to fight for free speech.”

Phillips' contract expires May 15.
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Simone Carter is a staff news reporter at the Dallas Observer who graduated from the University of North Texas' Mayborn School of Journalism. Her favorite color is red, but she digs Miles Davis' Kind of Blue.
Contact: Simone Carter

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