Collin College did not renew the contract of historian Lora Burnett, who had criticized the college’s pandemic response and leadership
(New York, NY) – PEN America today opposed the effective firing of historian Lora Burnett from a public community college in Texas. Burnett learned last week that his contract at Collin College would not be renewed following his public criticism of the campus’ response to the pandemic and its leadership. It comes just a month after the college also failed to renew the contracts of professors Suzanne Jones and Audra Heaslip, who also say they were retaliated against for criticizing college leaders.
“The leaders of Collin College seem to need a First Amendment lesson,” said Jonathan Friedman, director of free speech and education at PEN America. “It is hard to imagine a more alarming pattern of what appears to be blatant retaliation against faculty for protected speech. Burnett, Jones and Heaslip have raised fair and important questions about the college’s handling of the pandemic, as have professors at many colleges across the country. It is part of their responsibility as public intellectuals to ask hard questions and engage in debate on public issues of the day. This can hardly be considered a reasonable reason for termination.
“Furthermore, college leaders have failed for months to uphold the basic free speech rights of their employees, some of whom have been harassed. To see them quickly expel Burnett, Jones and Heaslip is a particularly disappointing failure in their duty to uphold free speech as an institution of higher learning in a democracy. Speech that embarrasses those in power is precisely what the First Amendment was designed to protect. If this purge goes unaddressed, it will cast an ominous chill on contingent faculty across the country, making them doubt their freedom to speak in ways that might displease their institutions. Unfortunately, it probably already is.