“It’s a paradox,” says Dr. Michael Phillips, the most recent faculty member at Collin College to lose his job over free speech infractions. “I did see this coming, but it’s still shocking.”
Less than one year after Liberation News interviewed Dr. Michael Phillips about the college’s reputation for retaliation against professors exercising their right to free speech, Phillips’ contract was terminated by means of nonrenewal. Collin College is in McKinney, Texas, a Dallas suburb. Liberation News interviewed Phillips after his firing. In addition to talking about repressive climate at Collin College, he also outlined his plan to fight back by taking the school to court. Phillips reiterated that free speech is the basis of all freedom struggles, including labor and civil rights. He says this is the reason free speech is targeted so fiercely.
Phillips told Liberation News that the “tipping point” for his nonrenewal was talking about masks with his students amid an ongoing pandemic. He said in the fall before classes started, the deans and associate deans of the school presented a PowerPoint banning any mention of masks in syllabi. This was followed by an email telling professors they also could not mention social distancing.
“When I went to school for my doctorate, I never dreamed for a moment that I’d be forbidden from sharing facts,” Phillips said. “In this case, facts that can save lives. Masks work.”
As the Delta variant surged, Phillips was summoned and disciplined, and four days later he was told his contract wouldn’t be renewed. He appealed to the school’s Council of Excellence, a faculty member committee, who recommended an extension of his contract, but he says the administration doubled down.
He was told by Senior Vice President Abe Johnson and Provost Mary Barnes-Tilley that he could work alongside them to “craft a narrative to have a dignified exit.” Phillips declined the offer and says he interpreted it as being asked to lie for the benefit of the college — now infamous on a national level for suppressing free speech. “It’s very revealing of their ethics,” he said.
Moving forward in solidarity
When asked what is next, Phillips said he plans to go to court, following closely behind Professor Lora Burnett, who recently sued the college for violating her right to free speech. Collin College settled the lawsuit.
“I’m going to try to change the situation for my colleagues that I will now be leaving,” he said. “That I leave behind a better institution than the one I worked for and was fired from.”
History of free speech attacks
For more than five years, Phillips himself has been battling the school over his right to exercise free speech in what he calls an ongoing war over the First Amendment.
In 2017, Phillips was a leader in the movement to remove Confederate monuments in Dallas. “I saw them as white supremacist icons that reinforced racism today,” he said. “Monuments with a sordid history, which is my field.”
Phillips co-authored an article for the Dallas Morning News calling for the removal of the statues and was promptly summoned by his provost and told he’d violated policy for being identified as a faculty member of Collin College in the article. Phillips argues it is standard practice in academia to cite one’s place of work and establish credentials. He added, “Public professors have the right to weigh in on matters of public concern.”
In 2019, Phillips was “majorly” reprimanded for confirming with the Washington Post incidences of neo-Nazi fliering on the campus. The outlet initially reached out to him as an expert on racism in Dallas to discuss the El Paso shooter, a white nationalist who was a former student of Collin College.
“I said I can’t talk about the shooting, but I can talk about racism in the suburbs and how it fits into Dallas history,” Phillips said. The shooting remains the deadliest anti-Latino attack in modern history.
Culture of fear
When asked about campus response, Phillips said, “Faculty are afraid to speak to each other. They’re afraid if they say something to a colleague, they’ll be reported and summoned to a meeting with the dean.”
Phillips mentioned a colleague, also a professor of history, who had offered a critique of former President Trump, who was then called in and instructed not to. Another colleague in the science department expressed anxiety over teaching evolution.
“The Scopes Trial was in 1925, and almost 100 years later, we have professors at an accredited college afraid that teaching science in science class might get them in trouble,” Phillips said.
Anti-labor values in capitalist academia
Collin College has a falling percentage of class hours taught by full-time faculty. Phillips said at one time roughly 80 percent of hours at the school were taught by full-time faculty. It’s now closer to 60 percent with additional hours being filled by adjunct professors. He says this is intentional.
“Part-time professors have very tenuous free speech rights,” Phillips says. “You can simply be omitted. There’s no contract to terminate.”
Collin College also doesn’t offer tenure, a strategy Phillips says is designed to maintain the status quo. Phillips summarized, “This is all connected to the politics of the county: seven extremely right-wing, male board members who vote in lockstep on every issue, appeasing the Republican base in Collin County.”
Phillips said President Neil Matkin described the college as undergoing “Amazonification.”
“He revealed more than he intended with that statement,” Phillips said. “If there’s one thing Amazon is famous for, it’s abusing their employees, relying on low-wage workers, overworking them, and making them feel vulnerable in terms of job security. And this is the model he has in mind?”
Educator of the Year
In October 2021, just a few months before Phillps was fired, he was named Educator of the Year by the East Texas Historical Association. The association has published a statement condemning Collin College for its decision.
“It would have been my 15th anniversary in August, but I won’t make it to that because of non-extension,” Phillips said.
You can sign the petition for Dr. Michael Phillips’ reinstatement here
Photo: Collin College. Credit: By Loadmaster (David R. Tribble) – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10392884