For years, professors have accused the administration of stifling academic freedom. Prominent free speech and academic organizations have repeatedly blasted the school for infringing on employees’ constitutional rights.
Well, the latest Collin College report card is here and it offers yet another failing grade. The American Association of University Professors announced last week that, along with Kansas’ Emporia State University, the North Texas school has been added to its censure list.
Collin College’s formal censure comes weeks after the release of a scathing AAUP report that found “egregious” academic freedom violations against three professors: Lora Burnett, Michael Phillips and Suzanne Jones. All three educators have taken the college to court.
Burnett’s trouble with the school kicked off in October 2020, when she criticized then-Vice President Mike Pence on social media. She was effectively fired the following year.
After Burnett filed suit against the school, Collin College agreed to pay her $70,000 and attorneys’ fees.
Learning that her former employer had landed on the AAUP’s censure list wasn’t exactly surprising to Burnett.
“For most schools, being added to that list would prompt some serious soul-searching and some major changes,” she said. “Unfortunately, nothing I've seen in Collin College leadership suggests that they are going to act responsibly, and they should.”
Critics have argued that the school has yet to learn from certain mistakes. Case in point: For the third year in a row, the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE) named Collin College one of the 10 worst colleges for free speech.
Academics in Texas and across the country are sounding the alarm that the future of education is in jeopardy. Conservatives, alleging a supposed liberal bent in public schools, have fought to scrub mention of race, sex or gender from curricula.
Higher education in Texas is also under fire from GOP lawmakers working to erase tenure and undo diversity, equity and inclusion programs.
"Nothing I've seen in Collin College leadership suggests that they are going to act responsibly, and they should." – Dr. Lora Burnett, former Collin College professor
But academic freedom, as the AAUP has defined it, is enshrined in Supreme Court opinions about the First Amendment, Burnett noted. It’s crucial for educators and students to be able to think and speak freely both inside and outside the classroom, she said.
Reached for comment, Collin College spokesperson Marisela Cadena-Smith said, in part, the school is “disheartened” the AAUP hasn’t acknowledged that institutions must abide by a set of both academic rights and academic duties. She said that “tenure and academic freedom are not unqualified privileges that can be extorted by external groups for their own purposes.”
Cadena-Smith further stated that Collin College faculty and staff are dedicated to student success and are focused on the school’s “many exceptional developments.”
Burnett sees things a little differently. She compared landing on the AAUP’s censure list to the public health department issuing a poor rating to a restaurant. Less-wealthy patrons may be left to consume the establishment’s substandard fare, but those who can afford to go elsewhere likely will.
Restaurant ratings have teeth, she continued, and ditto when it comes to AAUP’s censure list. The school could potentially lose its accreditation or be denied funds and grants.
“Collin might like to pretend that the AAUP is just a little private interest club, but its principles and its good judgment about college governance has become foundational for a lot of parts of the higher education ecosystem,” Burnett said. “So, it's not only a mark against Collin College’s reputation; it can have very real consequences.”
In an op-ed published in Inside Higher Education titled “Collin College Should Clean Up Its Act,” AAUP National President Irene Mulvey wrote that the AAUP’s policies are “the gold standard of the profession.” She argued that Collin College’s failure to uphold academic due process or tenure makes claims of academic freedom ring hollow.
“Our investigative report vividly depicts the consequence of that failure: faculty members losing their jobs for expressing opinions, for speaking to the press in their areas of expertise without administrative approval, for drawing the ire of politicians, for questioning the wisdom of institutional policies, for affiliating with groups disfavored by the administration, for teaching challenging ideas that make students uncomfortable,” Mulvey continued. “Faculty members who work under these conditions, and the students who learn from them, are hampered in their ability to search for the truth and fulfill the purpose of higher education.”
The way Burnett sees it, right-wing authoritarians across the country — like in Florida — have worked to weaken academic freedom in higher education. She believes that Collin College could be attempting to “actively erode and destroy freedom of inquiry and freedom of thought ... for crass political reasons.”
If the college doesn’t shape up, it will always be remembered as a “mini-dictatorship” in North Texas, Burnett said — but its students deserve better.
Collin College has a ton of potential for academic excellence, she added. It’s unfortunate that the administration “has decided that that just doesn't matter.
“I think the leadership of Collin College would rather be politically admired by the most retrograde conservatives in the state of Texas than act responsibly on behalf of their students. And I think it’s just sad,” Burnett continued. “Either the courts will compel the college to change course, or new college leadership will have to come in and do it.”