After Collin College nursing professor Iris Meda died of COVID-19 in November, faculty members chided the school for the “callous” way the college's president announced the news. History professor Michael Phillips was among them.
In January, Phillips authored a resolution calling for the college to honor Meda, who was Black. He requested that Meda’s portrait be displayed, for a scholarship to be named after her and for her family to be honored during a school event.
Although Phillips said Collin College’s faculty council passed the resolution on Jan. 22, district President Neil Matkin took nearly two months to write back. In an email sent last Tuesday, he brushed off Phillips’ requests, suggesting that council should devise a way to honor “all of our fallen colleagues.”
Phillips, who’s authored a book on Dallas’ history of racism, said Matkin’s response to his resolution drew parallels to “All Lives Matter,” a slogan that arose in backlash to the Black Lives Matter movement. At a time when social justice activists are pushing to honor the lives of Black Americans, some faculty say Collin College has avoided doing the same.
“That’s been the slogan: ‘Say her name,’ right? We didn’t say her name,” Phillips told the Observer. “This has been an American tragedy, a global tragedy, but it’s been especially a Black tragedy.”
Collin College did not return the Observer’s requests for comment.
Controversy has dogged Collin College in recent months: Three female professors who criticized the school’s coronavirus policies had their contracts terminated, prompting a groundswell of criticism against the college.
KERA reported that professor Suzanne Jones was told her contract also wouldn’t be renewed because she’d included the school’s name when she signed an open letter calling for the removal of Confederate monuments. Phillips, who co-wrote the letter, said he was scolded but faced no formal action.
“They’re not going to memorialize a space for a Black woman, and they’re firing someone who spoke out against racist statues,” he said of Collin College. “It’s not a good look, let’s put it that way. It’s an appallingly bad look.”
Phillips also criticized the way that Matkin informed the school of Meda’s passing: in the 22nd paragraph of an email titled “College Update & Happy Thanksgiving!” Matkin didn’t include the nursing professor’s name, although the school later told outlets it was because he hadn’t gained the family’s permission to do so.
Still, Phillips said Matkin could have handled the announcement better. In a January virtual event, the president again alluded to Meda’s death but didn’t say her name, Phillips said.
Meda grew up in Harlem and dropped out of high school, but she was eventually able to earn a nursing degree, according to The New Yorker. Throughout her career as a nurse, she tended to prisoners and worked at Rikers Island jail. She was so beloved by inmates that they clapped for her on her last day there.
“She was always looking for an underdog to pull up, because she was an underdog,” her daughter Selene Meda-Schlamel said, according to The New Yorker.
After she moved to Texas, Meda worked at the Lew Sterrett Justice Center in Dallas for a time before retiring at 70. She wanted to write a book and travel, but after the pandemic hit, she felt compelled to help.
Meda then applied for a position at Collin College to train a new generation of healthcare workers. She thought she'd be teaching online, but the school sent her to instruct in a classroom where it wasn’t possible to maintain a safe distance from students.
In October, Meda fell ill with COVID-19 several days after a student in her class had tested positive. The nursing instructor was already at high risk of suffering complications from the disease, and Phillips marveled at her commitment to helping others during a time of crisis.
“This is a woman who would have spent her life applying a cool cloth to heated brows and being the soothing voice as people are in pain or dying — she dies the way people die during COVID,” he said. “She has a tube shoved down her throat. Her daughter’s in what’s basically a spacesuit and the kind of warm intimacy that death used to involve if loved ones were nearby was denied her.”
The coronavirus has disproportionately harmed the country’s minority populations, Phillips said, and Texas’ vaccine rollout was also mired in racism. Meanwhile, Black people are dying from the disease at a rate nearly twice that of whites, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Collin College officials don’t want to face the consequences of their policies, which could be why they don’t want to accept his resolution, Phillips said. On top of honoring Meda, he hopes the three outgoing professors will be reinstated.
Other employees are afraid of speaking out against the school, but Phillips said he couldn’t keep quiet.
“I hope and expect the college will ultimately do the right thing and reinstate the professors who fought for greater Covid safety,” Phillips later said in a direct message. “If and when they leave, however, they will leave with their integrity intact. I hope more at the college can say that.”
Keep the Dallas Observer Free... Since we started the Dallas Observer, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Dallas, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Dallas with no paywalls.