The college had decided to not renew their contracts and a debate soon erupted. The professors and their supporters accused Collin College of violating their free speech rights and effectively firing them. Each had spoken out about the college in one way or another.
One professor, Lora Burnett, had been let go after mocking former Vice President Mike Pence online. But something else caught Kurz’s eye. He learned the other two professors, Suzanne Jones and Audra Heaslip, had been involved in organizing the college’s professors and staff.
“What really bothered me about the entire situation wasn’t necessarily the First Amendment context, which can take a long time to work out,” Kurz told the Observer. “What doesn’t take a long time to work out is the organizing.”
Kurz added, “If you just magically lose your job while you’re organizing, that’s something that you cannot just explain to the National Labor Relations Board.”
So, Kurz typed up an email making the case that the college had broken the law. “[B]y firing employees engaged in the act of organizing, Matkin violated the Wagner Act and other labor laws, inviting a full investigation from the National Labor Relations Board,” he wrote.
But when he sent it off, Collin County Judge Chris Hill, who heads up the county commissioners court, responded harshly. He had been a leading advocate for reopening the county and the state during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Jones and Heaslip had criticized the college’s decision to continue in-person instruction.
In his email, Hill celebrated the fact that the women’s contracts were terminated. He accused the women of “consistently and publicly deriding and destroying the very institution for which they worked.” And he falsely claimed they had engaged in “doxxing the leaders and attempting to harm their private businesses.”
Hill also CC’d several elected officials.
Taking aim at Kurz, Hill said the professor’s email was “false on two fronts.” He said the terminated professors had “a pattern of reprehensible behavior,” while also denying that they had been fired at all. Hill claimed that “they completed their employment contracts with the college, at which time the administration decided not to renew their contracts for future service.”
In the same email, however, Hill claimed he had no knowledge of why the college had not renewed the professors’ contracts.
“If these three individuals worked for me, and behaved as they have, I would have pursued their immediate termination for cause,” Hill went on.
Hill’s response was so intense that a Collin College board member replied to Kurz and apologized for the county judge’s tone. But Hill stood his ground. “I assure you that I am not alone in my disgust with the ignorant attacks that have been leveled against the Collin College leadership by out-of-state agitators.”
Heaslip and Jones were officers of a recently formed local chapter of the Texas Faculty Association, a nonprofit advocacy organization for university teachers and support staff. The association is affiliated with the National Education Association teachers union.
“I assure you that I am not alone in my disgust with the ignorant attacks that have been leveled against the Collin College leadership by out-of-state agitators.” - Chris Hill, Collin County Judge
In late January, the school told Heaslip and Jones their contracts wouldn’t be renewed. Burnett, who had criticized the former U.S. vice president, learned the college wouldn’t renew hers the following month.
All three say the college effectively fired them. For its part, Collin College hasn’t said much publicly. A college spokesperson told the Observer no professors had been fired and declined to comment further on internal personnel matters.
Hill isn’t the first prominent Republican to wade into the debate. One of the officials he CC’d in his email to Kurz, Republican state Rep. Jeff Leach, has openly mocked Burnett on Twitter.
Leach also exchanged text messages with the President of Collin College, Neil Matkin, specifically about Burnett’s employment at Collin College. These messages were uncovered by a public information request, which the college spent $14,000 to fight.
Burnett denied having doxxed anyone. “If he’s talking about a Twitter thread where I encouraged people to email the Collin Board of trustees, their businesses are all listed in their Collin College bios, as are their email addresses,” she told the Observer.
On top of that, she said Hill had unfairly lumped the three professors together. “Sometimes I'm a potty mouth on Twitter,” she said. “So apparently that makes me unfit in their eyes. But that's certainly not the case for Dr. Jones or Professor Heaslip. They have been unimpeachable in their public comments.”
Contacted by the Observer, Hill didn’t answer questions about whether he truly believed the professors had doxxed anyone. Instead, he claimed the professors had promoted “cancel culture,” although he didn’t explain how the professors had “canceled” anyone.
Hill believes “disgruntled political activists have attempted to cast Collin College in a negative light by spreading malicious lies about the institution,” according to a statement he sent to the Observer.
“In typical fashion, these activists excuse their own reprehensible behavior and then feign disbelief because the administration chose not to renew their employment contracts,” he said. “Those of us who live in this community have watched as these individuals have attempted to tear down this great institution and its leaders over the course of the past year. In the end, I am amazed and impressed with the forbearance and tolerance demonstrated by President Matkin and the Board of Trustees.”
The three professors have attracted broad support. On February 6, dozens of locals spoke in support of Jones and Heaslip at an emergency board of trustees meeting. The following month, on March 2, several people joined a protest outside another board of trustees meeting and called on the college to reinstate all three professors.
Burnett, Jones and Heaslip have all been told their contracts were not renewed for different reasons, which include: organizing a chapter of the Texas Faculty Association, opposition to in-person teaching during the COVID-19 pandemic, and outspoken criticism of the college president and Republican politicians.
But Jones’ personnel files, which were accessed via a Freedom of Information Act request, suggest the administration had been upset by her attempts to organize the Collin TFA chapter.
On September 22, 2020, Jones requested via email permission to announce the TFA chapter at a Faculty Council meeting. Jones was one of three officers of the organization at the time.
Two days later, her request was denied, and that same day, someone at the college added to her personnel file an email thread from 2017 regarding her signing of a letter opposing Confederate monuments.
On September 28, she received a call from the Dean of Academic Affairs & Workforce, Gary Evans, asking her to have TFA remove Collin College from the website, specifically stating that the college could not be affiliated with an organization with union connections. While Jones is a member of the board of TFA, she says she doesn't control the website. In any case, these two incidents were later cited to Jones as reasons for letting her go.
The college also cited Jones’ public stance on reopening plans as a reason for her contract’s nonrenewal.
Last summer, Jones signed a faculty senate resolution that requested the college allow professors to teach online instead of returning to in-person learning. Around a third of the faculty signed the resolution.
But the resolution was ignored. In November, Matkin came under intense scrutiny for how he mishandled the announcement of a faculty member that had died from COVID-19. At least one student at Collin also died after being diagnosed with COVID in October.
One of the lead authors of the faculty resolution was Audra Heaslip, whom Collin College let go on the same day as Jones. Heaslip was also an officer in the Collin College TFA chapter, and the timing of their firing coincided with the Collin College TFA chapter's first public meeting.
Heaslip says that she was told she was fired for putting outside pressure on the administration regarding the reopening plans. Heaslip admits that she spoke to the media. “I think Suzanne and I have been targeted because we are outspoken and are willing to point out when we think there is a problem,” she told the Observer.
Lora Burnett also signed on to the faculty resolution opposing full reopening but believes she was fired primarily due to her outspoken criticism of Republican lawmakers on Twitter, a habit that had previously caused controversy in October 2020. At the time, she tweeted from her personal account that then-Vice President Mike Pence should shut “his little demon mouth up.”
Burnett has also been an outspoken critic of President Matkin. In fact, she’s perhaps one of his fiercest public critics. She has used her Twitter platform to publicly deride Matkin for a variety of actions, something that cannot be said of her former colleagues Jones and Heaslip.
“And still, the public official who wrote that letter and the college itself are treating us as if we have all done the same horrible offense,” Burnett said.