Suzanne Jones was “floored and shocked” when she was fired without warning from Collin College on Thursday.
Beloved by colleagues and students, the education professor has worked there since 2001 and serves on the school’s faculty council. But Jones said she was let go out of the blue for challenging the college’s COVID-19 reopening plans; she'll leave at the end of the spring semester.
“I literally do not know what I’m going to do,” Jones told the Observer. “I’m an empty-nester now, so literally, it could not come at a worse time to feel this way — to just feel so lonely and not have your group, your tribe, that I’ve had all the time.”
Prior to the start of the fall semester, Jones had signed a resolution asking the college to move classes that could go online to a virtual learning format. One-third of the school’s faculty, nearly 130 people, also signed, she said.
But that wasn’t Jones’ only infraction. Thursday, she was also informed her multi-year extension wouldn’t be renewed because the college’s name had appeared on a website page for the Texas Faculty Association, an educational advocacy group for which she serves on the board.
Yet Jones said she wasn’t responsible for the TFA website’s contents. Plus, she’d asked to have the name removed upon the school’s request last fall; it was taken down within 48 hours.
Coincidentally, Jones had helped to create a local TFA chapter, which was set to have its first meet-up event to recruit new members Thursday, the day that she was fired. Another one of the chapter's three officers, and the COVID-19 resolution’s lead author, professor Audra Heaslip, was also let go that day.
Personally, Heaslip said she's upset because she loves her job and her students. Professionally, she's sad the college's culture has become "so toxic, authoritarian and fear-based" — and that it keeps getting worse.
Heaslip said she and Jones are among a handful of professors who would speak out and stand up for their colleagues. She also was targeted for having talked to the media about the way the school has handled COVID-19.
"If they're willing to get rid of people like us just because we disagree, then I really fear for the future of the culture at the college," she said.
"It's getting really bad," she continued. "I mean, the fear is just out the roof."
TFA President Pat Heintzelman said in an emailed statement the organization is “outraged” over the firings.
“I am reminding the Collin College administration in no uncertain terms that college professors have the same rights to free speech and association as other Americans do, and we are exploring legal options on Jones’ and Heaslip’s behalf,” Heintzelman said.
Adam Steinbaugh, a lawyer with the campus free speech nonprofit Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), said the ordeal is concerning from a First Amendment perspective.
“It raises the question whether or not the college is retaliating against employees for criticizing its administration’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic or for participating in a union,” Steinbaugh said.
Spokeswoman Marisela Cadena-Smith said in an emailed statement that the school won't comment on internal personnel matters “in concert with Collin College core values, particularly dignity and respect.”
The community college has made headlines several times over the past few months.
“Why is it so important to control faculty speech? What are they afraid the faculty are going to say that the public doesn’t know?" – Professor Lora Burnett
Late last year, Inside Higher Ed reported that Collin College faculty were upset by the way district President Neil Matkin notified them that a professor had died after being exposed to COVID-19 on the job. He also appeared to have downplayed the virus in an August letter to trustees.
“The effects of this pandemic have been blown utterly out of proportion across our nation and reported with unfortunate sensationalism and few facts regardless of which news outlet one tunes into,” Matkin wrote, according to KERA.
Another educator has accused Collin College of targeting her for exercising free speech: history professor Lora Burnett.
In October, Matkin complained that tweets from Burnett, in which she criticized former Vice President Mike Pence, had inspired calls for her termination from the public and lawmakers.
So, FIRE filed information requests for documentation of correspondences with those legislators, Steinbaugh said. Collin College has fought them every step of the way, appealing to the Texas attorney general to block the records’ release. On Jan. 22, the state ruled that the college must cough them up.
Something very rotten is happening at @collincollege. In addition to the well-documented violations of Dr. Burnett's free speech, at least two professors have been fired for criticizing the college's teaching-during-a-pandemic policies. https://t.co/H6YuP7o9ua— Todd Moye (@todd_moye) January 29, 2021
Steinbaugh characterized the school’s actions as “unusual.”
“I don’t think I’ve ever had to submit this many public records requests about one college,” he said.
Last month, Burnett was again punished for a tweet. She said she was issued a Level 1 disciplinary warning — indicating a potentially fireable offense — for posting about the COVID-19 death of another professor who had worked at Collin College.
Thursday, she also tweeted that the school had forced a COVID-positive educator to teach from the hospital.
Burnett said it amazes her that Collin College is continuing to “squelch the free speech of faculty” at a time when they are already under public scrutiny for violating hers.
apropos of nothing, @collincollege required a professor with COVID to TEACH THEIR CLASS FROM THE HOSPITAL. just FYI.— Dr. L.D. Burnett (@LDBurnett) January 28, 2021
“I don’t understand their strategy at all,” Burnett said, adding there are now three instances where the college has disciplined and punished female faculty for speaking out.
“Why is it so important to control faculty speech?" she continued. "What are they afraid the faculty are going to say that the public doesn’t know?"
Jones said she’ll finish out the rest of the semester and plans to challenge her case. She wants to continue working there because she’s passionate about her job and loves her students and coworkers.
More than anything, Jones said she wants her colleagues to feel safe speaking their minds.
“I hope that I will be reinstated,” Jones said, “but if I’m not, then I hope that my colleagues will have more freedom, free speech, and I hope that the culture of the college will change.”