On February 25, 2021, Collin College declined to renew the contract of history Professor Lora Burnett in apparent retaliation for expression critical of the college’s handling of the COVID-19-pandemic and former United States Vice President, Mike Pence.
In an email confirming that her employment at the college would end on May 14, the college accused Burnett of “insubordination, making private personnel issues public that impair the college’s operations, and personal criticisms of co-workers, supervisors, and/or those who merely disagree with you.”
The accusations appear to stem from a number of Burnett’s comments criticizing the college for its response to the pandemic, including a private email to the college president criticizing the institution’s reopening plan, a series tweets criticizing the college for how it reported a faculty member’s death from the COVID-19, and a tweet stating that another faculty member had died of from the coronavirus.
In addition to her criticism of the college’s COVID-19 response, a tweet about then-Vice President Mike Pence also appears to have influenced the college’s decision to terminate Burnett’s contract. During a 2020 presidential debate, Burnett tweeted, “The moderator needs to talk over Mike Pence until he shuts his little demon mouth up.” According to a report by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), the college president told faculty in an email that the tweet “attracted the attention of ‘college constituents’ and led to ‘contacts from legislators.’” A FIRE report containing text message exchanges with the college president indicates that one of these legislators asked him if Burnett were paid with taxpayer dollars. The president responded, saying he was aware of the situation, that he would “deal with it,” and that Burnett was “already on my radar before the current issue.”
The termination of Burnett’s contract followed similar reprisals against two other Collin College faculty members: Audra Heaslip and Suzanne Jones. Both scholars’ contracts were terminated in apparent retaliation for their criticizing of the college’s COVID-19 response.
Scholars at Risk is concerned by the nonrenewal of a scholar’s contract in apparent retaliation for nonviolent, responsible exercise of academic freedom. University authorities should refrain from retaliating against scholars for responsible expression critical of their institution. In addition to the harm to the immediate victim, dismissals aimed at restricting or retaliating against such activity undermine academic freedom and democratic society generally.