Education

AAUP Relaunches Investigation into Collin College Following Latest Alleged 'Firing'

Several academic groups have written in support of Dr. Michael Phillips.
Several academic groups have written in support of Dr. Michael Phillips. Mike Brooks
The schoolhouse brawl between Collin College and academic freedom advocates continues.

Earlier this year, history professor Michael Phillips claimed that he’d been effectively fired in violation of his First Amendment rights. Higher education advocacy groups have demanded his reinstatement and slammed the school for allegedly trampling on academic freedom.

On Monday, the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) demanded Phillips’ reinstatement in a seven-page letter. Last year, the organization announced a review of the terminations of other former Collin College faculty. The investigation was paused amid legal action, but after one former professor again decided to opt in, it was relaunched to include Phillips.

The embattled history professor believes his case has national implications.

“I didn’t want the situation to come to this, but I decided to take up this struggle because what happens at this college affects professors everywhere,” Phillips said. “Free speech rights at colleges and universities across the country are in jeopardy, and someone has to stand up and do the right thing.”

Earlier this month, Phillips announced he was suing his employer.

Phillips is the latest in a string of professors who claim Collin College fired them in violation of their academic freedom and constitutional rights. With each termination, the school must field more flak from academics and national groups.

AAUP argues that despite Phillips’ 15 years of full-time service, Collin College retaliated against him based on comments made both inside and outside the classroom on controversial subjects. The administration also reportedly violated Phillips’ due process by not “afford[ing] him a hearing before an elected faculty committee.”

Among other issues, Phillips says that his criticism of the school’s coronavirus policies, his classroom remarks on masks and his calls for the removal of Confederate statues all dotted the road to nonrenewal. He and his supporters claim he was effectively fired, but the school disputes that framing, saying the administration merely decided against renewing Phillips’ contract.

“We have to stand up for the legitimacy of the enterprise and the importance in a free society of letting people study the past, which is not always shiny happy stories that make us proud of ourselves." – Dr. Benjamin H. Johnson

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Collin College’s general counsel, to whom AAUP’s letter was addressed, did not return the Observer’s request for comment by publication time. But in an email, school spokesperson Marisela Cadena-Smith slammed AAUP’s “mischaracterization of this personnel matter.”

She also argued that the AAUP had largely based its findings on Phillips’ word and “news reports” [quotation marks hers] colored by the outgoing professor’s claims. She added that the school would respond to the AAUP’s letter but would not “discuss detailed personnel information about Dr. Phillips which is subject to pending litigation.”

Following Phillips’ contract nonrenewal, Benjamin H. Johnson, a history professor at Loyola University Chicago, got organized. In a petition addressed to the agency that gives Collin College its accreditation, he and dozens of other signatories asked for an investigation into the school’s compliance with academic freedom provisions.

For the professors backing the petition, it’s really a question of Collin College’s academic legitimacy, Johnson said. Unlike other employers, universities are not free to hire and fire people just because they want to. If Phillips was retaliated against, the school should be stripped of its accreditation, he said.

Throughout his 20 years as a university professor, Johnson said, he’s never seen a faculty-led direct appeal to an accrediting agency. He believes that it illustrates how shocked the history education community is at Collin College's record, plus how out of hand the push to penalize teachers for academically protected speech has become.

Collin College may be its “own little world of strangeness” when it comes to scuffles with faculty, but it’s a trend that’s also cropping up at a quick clip nationwide, he said. Even public school districts are pulling books about race and sexuality and educators are under fire for making reasonable historical assertions.

“We have to stand up for the legitimacy of the enterprise and the importance in a free society of letting people study the past, which is not always shiny happy stories that make us proud of ourselves,” Johnson said.

For his part, Phillips is looking to drum up as much support as possible: “We’re hoping to prevail, and we welcome any support we can get.”
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Simone Carter, a staff news reporter at the Dallas Observer, 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