Edited at 3:32 p.m. to include comment from Collin College.
The controversy surrounding the firing of three Collin College professors reached its culmination Tuesday evening as dozens of protesters gathered at the school’s Higher Education Center in McKinney.
This gathering coincided with a Board of Trustees meeting in which officials held a closed executive session for legal consultation and listened to public comment.
The protest started at approximately 6 p.m. and included an intense encounter with two Collin College police officers, who threatened to issue a citation to one of the event’s chief organizers, Kristi Lara of the self-described “progressive populist” advocacy group Our Revolution Texas.
Lara was speaking through a portable PA system and played audio of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I’ve Been on the Mountaintop” speech during her interaction with officers.
“They kicked us off the comments. They said we’re not allowed to peacefully assemble,” Lara said. “After we removed ourselves from the commons area, I was adamant with them that it was a public institution with public sidewalks, and we have the right to peacefully assemble. They had us move out here to the easement, which is near the road, and then once I brought out the portable PA system, they demanded that I put the PA system away because it was violating [an] ordinance. My response to them was that I am perfectly within my rights as a person to peacefully assemble and use freedom of speech.”
Another organizer who heavily promoted the event was Michael Phillips, a Collin College history professor since 2007 and member of the Texas Faculty Association.
“I’ve seen a substantial deterioration of free speech rights at this campus,” he said. “These three professors – all women – have been purged because they belong to the Texas Faculty Association. That’s a suppression of labor rights.”
These three professors are humanities professor Audra Heaslip, education professor Suzanne Jones and history professor Lora Burnett, whose contract Collin College allegedly decided not to renew after a series of tweets that were critical of former Vice President Mike Pence.
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) published a screenshot of what they allege is a text exchange between State Rep. Jeff Leach of Plano and Collin College president H. Neil Matkin. In this conversation, a party identified as the former said, “LD Burnet [sic] is paid with taxpayer dollars, correct?” and “I’m getting a lot of calls from folks. Not a ton… but a few… as it is starting to percolate on social media.” The recipient of this conversation, alleged to be Matkin, said, “My inbox and the board is getting the same. Appreciate you. Good luck in November friend.”
Leach nor Matkin have confirmed the veracity of these texts, although the former publicly celebrated Burnett’s firing as “A BIG WIN!” in a since-deleted tweet.
Heaslip and Jones alleged in late January and early February that Collin College decided against renewing their contract for speaking critically about the administration’s handling of COVID-19. The school’s communication director, Marisela Cadena-Smith, said in a Feb. 2 email to Star Local Media, “In consideration of our employees’ privacy, the college will not publicly comment on internal personnel matters.”
When reached for further comment on Tuesday's protest, Cadena-Smith said, "Collin College has policies and procedures to address employees’ concerns and rights, including a well-established process for conducting administrative appeals for issues such as the non-renewal of a faculty contract. The college has and will continue to follow those policies and processes. Therefore, out of respect for our employees’ privacy, the college will not provide further comment on this matter."