Education

Yet Another History Professor Says Collin College Fired Him Over Free Speech Concerns

Professor Michael Phillips on Monday claimed that Collin College has fired him.
Professor Michael Phillips on Monday claimed that Collin College has fired him. Mike Brooks
Editor's note, 1/31/2022 at 4:05 p.m.: This story was updated with Michael Phillips' quotes.

For months, Collin College history professor Michael Phillips had advocated for colleagues who claimed they were fired in violation of their rights. Now, it appears he’s next on the chopping block.

In a Twitter thread Monday, Phillips announced that Collin College decided against renewing his contract, which expires May 15.

For one thing, he says, the administration was upset that he’d publicly posted about a policy preventing professors from recommending masks in class. Despite this, Phillips encouraged mask use, discussed anti-mask leagues amid the 1918 influenza pandemic and assigned coursework related to the history of epidemics and pandemics. Soon enough, Phillips said, he received a discipline warning for his social media posts and classroom speech.

Phillips also says he was warned by an administrator that he’d violated school policy after co-authoring a 2017 open letter that called for the removal of Dallas’ Confederate statues. The letter identified him as a professor at Collin College. Another professor there had also signed the letter, which she claims became part of the school's reasoning for her termination.

“The news that I have been fired is heartbreaking to me,” Phillips said in a tweet. “Teaching, mentoring, and getting to know my students and watching them flower into full adulthood has been one of the most rewarding parts of my life.”

Speaking with the Observer, Phillips said the school was upset that he’d made the masking “gag rule” public and spoken to the Board of Trustees.

“It’s just apparent that they feel like college policy trumps the First Amendment, some kind of vague policy that the foundational document of the United States somehow is not relevant anymore,” he said. “It doesn’t say in the First Amendment I have the freedom to petition my government for a redress of grievances — as long as I talk to my associate dean first.”
In his Twitter thread, Phillips says that last week, he was called in for a meeting in which the institution’s senior vice president suggested he make a “graceful exit” from Collin College. Phillips claims that he was asked to work in tandem with the school to “construct a narrative” around his departure, such as by telling others that he would be leaving voluntarily.

“He further said that, with such cooperation, the college could help me in my search for a new position,” Phillips continued. “I declined the offer.”

"I will be free to make his fight my fight.” – Dr. Lora Burnett, former Collin College history professor

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When asked for comment, Collin College spokesperson Marisela Cadena-Smith sent a statement describing the school’s contract renewal process. She declined to publicly comment on personnel matters “out of respect for the privacy of our faculty members and their respective current and future employment.”

In a separate email, the Observer also specifically asked about Phillips' allegation that he'd been encouraged to say his departure was voluntary, purportedly in exchange for help finding another job. Cadena-Smith reiterated that the school would provide no further comment.

Phillips is the latest Collin College professor who says the school targeted them over free speech. He’s long been a harsh critic of district President Neil Matkin, but he’s far from the only one.

Lora Burnett was a history professor at Collin College until last year, when she says she was let go in violation of her constitutional rights. So, she sued the school, and last Tuesday accepted its offer to pay her $70,000 plus attorneys’ fees.

Burnett said she was “absolutely beside [herself] with righteous indignation” when she learned of her former colleague’s announcement.

Phillips is a beloved employee and longtime advocate for the rights of all North Texas citizens, in addition to being an all-around extraordinary person, Burnett said. For the administrators to suggest that he lie about the circumstances behind his non-renewal is perhaps the most shocking thing she’s ever heard coming out of Collin College, she said, adding that “if that’s not criminal, it should be.”

Moving forward, Burnett said, she’s willing to do everything she can to support Phillips, who tirelessly advocated for her and other professors who were “wrongfully fired.” She will continue to focus public scrutiny on the malfeasance of Collin College, a government entity that has continually violated the citizens’ constitutional rights, she said.

“I have time on my hands now, and I have a check on the way,” Burnett said. “And I will be free to make his fight my fight.”

For his part, Phillips fears that Collin College is creating an atmosphere where professors are terrified of losing their job over what they say in the classroom.

“It’s just a tragedy for the students because if you have faculty who are afraid, they’re not going to look for interesting new ways to tackle topics like the Gilded Age or Reconstruction or feminism,” he said. “They’re going to be afraid to broach controversial subjects, which really dramatically reduces the quality of education."
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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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