I never imagined my college would fire me for mentioning facts in a classroom.
When the administration of Collin College in Plano, just north of Dallas, told me this past January that my contract as a history professor would not be renewed, I was somehow shocked and not totally surprised at the same time.
I don’t have the typical resume of a fired professor. My first book, White Metropolis, which describes the history of racism in Dallas, was named a book of the year by the Texas Historical Commission in 2007. In 2021, I won a teaching award from the East Texas Historical Association.
During my 14 years at Collin, students consistently praised my talent for making history come alive. Many said that they hated history before taking my class, but finished the semester loving it. Students say they appreciate my intensity and honesty.
“Dr. Phillips is raw and unfiltered, and I love it,” one student wrote in an evaluation. “He’s not afraid to speak the truth.”
In spite of these achievements, my career at Collin College came crashing down at the beginning of the fall 2021 semester, when I recommended that my students wear masks to keep themselves and others safe from COVID-19.
My administration often has not treated the pandemic with the seriousness warranted by the deadliest event ever to befall Americans (in terms of total fatalities, anyway). Like much of the country, Collin College shut down in the middle of the spring semester in 2020, with classes offered online. However, by that summer, the college president, Neil Matkin, made clear he intended to resume mostly in-person teaching by the fall, and he used language that faculty found unnerving.
At one point, Matkin claimed that masks were only 10 percent effective in preventing COVID transmission. He said the reported deaths were “clearly inflated.” He insisted Texans faced more danger from car accidents. “The effects of this pandemic have been blown utterly out of proportion,” Matkin proclaimed in an August 15, 2020, email sent to all employees. (A quick Texas statistics check shows how wrong he was: County health authorities reported 31,315 deaths from COVID in 2020, far more than the 3,896 motor vehicle fatalities recorded that year.)
Matkin brushed off an open letter sent by about 130 members of the faculty asking for classes to be mostly online in fall 2020. The college did not post a COVID dashboard until a frustrated faculty member complained to the press—constitutionally protected speech that nevertheless got her fired in spring 2021.
This attitude toward the pandemic prevailed through August 2021. The administration assigned students to classrooms at full capacity. In July 2021, Governor Greg Abbott issued an executive order prohibiting public institutions from requiring masks. In that order, however, Abbott encouraged individuals to take this precaution. He certainly didn’t prohibit anyone from recommending masks.
When faculty met with administrators on August 11, 2021 in preparation for the beginning of the semester, my associate dean informed us a gag rule would be imposed on faculty. In a PowerPoint presentation, we were told professors could not in any way require, recommend, or request that students wear masks. The PowerPoint also told professors that we “cannot encourage [students] to wear them in person.”
Collin College imposed this classroom silence at a time when more than 700 Americans were dying every day, mostly from the Delta variant of COVID.
At the time I received these instructions, the media was heavily covering the story of Daniel Wilkinson, a 46-year-old veteran who was awarded a Purple Heart while fighting in Afghanistan.
Wilkinson developed gallstone pancreatitis, a treatable condition, but died in August 2021 because doctors in Bellville, a town only 60 miles from Houston, could not find an ICU bed for him in Texas or other states because they were filled with COVID patients.
As the son of a 22-year Marine Corps veteran who served in both the Korean and Vietnam wars, I was devastated by this story, and it helped motivate me to speak out.
I believe the college’s gag rule is dangerous to public health. Collin College is a taxpayer-supported institution. Citizens have a right to know about the college’s policies regarding a pandemic that so far has killed one million Americans. The U.S. Supreme Court, in the landmark 1968 Pickering v. Board of Education decision, upheld the right of public employees to speak on matters of public concern without being dismissed. A once-in-a-century disease outbreak certainly qualifies as a matter of public concern.
I decided to exercise my right as a citizen, and I spoke out. I posted news of the mask gag rule on my Facebook and Twitter pages and addressed the college’s publicly elected trustees at their next public meeting.
On the first day of classes, I assigned my students to write a history of pandemics in North America since Christopher Columbus arrived in the Caribbean in 1492. I told them that during the 1918-1919 influenza pandemic, anti-mask leagues formed when cities issued mandates. I shared the story of Daniel Wilkinson, and I urged students to think about the impact of their own decisions—not only on themselves but on everyone around them. Professors at Collin College, by the way, are told to teach students to exercise personal and social responsibility.
My associate dean later told me vaguely that “some,” or “a couple,” or “several” students complained about my remarks. I was never given any other details.
Shortly thereafter, I was informed that I would not be recommended for a three-year contract extension. That meant my job ended with the spring 2022 semester.
Sadly, grotesque violations of free speech rights have become the norm at Collin College. In 2017, I was warned after I co-authored an open letter calling for the removal of Dallas’ Confederate monuments and given “coaching” for talking about the history of racism in the Dallas-Fort Worth area to a Washington Post reporter after a student reportedly murdered 23 people during a mass shooting at an El Paso Walmart in 2019.
Another professor, historian Lora Burnett, got fired for criticizing former Vice President Mike Pence on her private Twitter page during the October 2020 vice presidential debate. Yet another excellent professor, Suzanne Jones, had her career cut short because her name appeared as a contact person for the Texas Faculty Association, a non-bargaining union, and because she co-signed my letter on Confederate statues. The Philadelphia-based Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression is representing Jones and me in a federal civil rights lawsuit against Collin College.
At the beginning of COVID, I hoped this terrifying threat might pull us together as a country. I did not anticipate how thoroughly this killer virus would divide Americans.
The pandemic has not ended. COVID yet stalks the planet. I still dread the possibility that I may one day hear that the disease has claimed the life of one of my students. For the sake of those we have lost, we can’t let this tragedy also claim free speech as a victim.
We don’t know when the next killer pandemic will happen. We only know that one certainly will.
I hope that when that moment comes, we will have taught younger generations how to discuss complex problems as adults and trained them to deal with new ideas and uncomfortable truths. We won’t be able to find answers to the next public health disaster if reasonable voices are silenced in the name of momentary political convenience. Gag rules won’t save lives, and suppression of speech won’t shield anyone from harm. Rampant censorship, however, can be a lethal pathogen to a free society.