I was Fired for Asking My Students to Wear MasksRoundup
tags: Texas, public health, academic freedom, COVID-19
MICHAEL PHILLIPS, a historian and author, recently accepted a position as senior research fellow at Southern Methodist University.
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.”
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