SAR’s Academic Freedom Monitoring Project investigates and reports attacks on higher education with the aim of raising awareness, generating advocacy, and increasing protection for scholars, students, and academic communities. Learn more.

Date of Incident: September 14, 2021

Attack Types: Loss of Position

Institution(s):Indiana University Northwest

Region & Country:Americas | United States of America

New or Ongoing:New Incident

On September 14, 2021, Indiana University Northwest (IUN) summarily dismissed tenured communications professor Mark McPhail apparently for alleged remarks he made.

The termination came roughly one month after the university suspended McPhail from his teaching duties and cut his salary by 75%, apparently in response to McPhail disputing a negative teaching evaluation issued by his dean in July 2021. According to the American Association of University Professors (AAUP)—a US-based advocacy organization that investigates and responds to academic freedom violations—McPhail, in replying to the dean, defended his work integrity, raised concerns over the use of student evaluations to measure teaching quality, noted that he had never been subject to a peer review (as he had experienced at other higher education institutions where he taught), and stated that he was not previously made aware of the concerns raised in the dean’s evaluation. IUN administrators did not consult a faculty committee prior to suspending McPhail.

On September 14, three IUN police officers reportedly were sent to McPhail’s private residence to deliver him a termination letter that further ordered him banned from the campus. The university’s letter accused McPhail of making threats of physical violence, without citing specific examples or witnesses. A member of the university’s general counsel’s office told McPhail’s lawyer that a faculty member had told IUN’s Executive Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs (EVCAA) that McPhail allegedly “used words to the effect that ‘the only way to end racism is to kill all the white people.’”

McPhail denied making such a comment and separate investigations by IUN’s Faculty Board of Review and the AAUP rebutted allegations that McPhail engaged in violent, threatening speech. According to the FBOR investigation, the faculty member who IUN’s general counsel apparently referred to told the EVCAA that he “had discussed the history of racism in the US with McPhail and had heard McPhail state his view that if indigenous people had killed all the early white settlers, racism would not have established itself in the Americas.” That faculty member said he shared the conversation with the EVCAA because he felt McPhail was “distraught and in need of support,” and wanted to “impress upon [the EVCAA] how deeply McPhail felt about systemic racism in the US.” (It warrants mentioning here that much of McPhail’s work at IUN focused on racial equity at the institution, which is based in the majority-Black city of Gary, Indiana.) The FBOR’s interviews with another faculty member and one administrator who spoke directly with McPhail following his suspension and prior to his dismissal—only three members of the IUN personnel are said to have spoken with McPhail during that time—also rebut claims that McPhail engaged in violent or threatening speech.

The two investigations also raised serious due process concerns. In particular, the university administration reportedly denied McPhail a faculty hearing prior to his suspension and dismissal, and declined to provide McPhail the names of any accusers, effectively putting the burden on McPhail to disprove the claims of violent speech in order to appeal his dismissal.

The AAUP’s report further described “highly plausible” allegations by McPhail that the disciplinary actions were motivated by his public criticism of the university’s management of racial equity on campus. In 2016 and 2017, McPhail filed complaints with IUN’s Office of Affirmative Action and Employment Practices and the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in Gary, citing salary discrimination and a pattern of racial hostility. (The university found no basis for McPhail’s complaint and the EEOC never responded, according to the AAUP’s report.) And in April 2018, McPhail put together an on-campus forum titled, “Do Black Minds Matter in Indiana?,” which, the AAUP reported, “focused on accounts of how state universities, including IUN, were harming the state’s residents by their failure to recruit, retain, and graduate Black students.”

McPhail has since filed a lawsuit against IUN. As of this report, McPhail is the Interim Vice President for Academic Affairs and Provost at Linfield University, in Oregon.

Scholars at Risk is concerned about reports of the summary dismissal of a scholar, apparently based on grounds that include alleged expressive activity. Higher education administrators should respect academic freedom, and should employ transparent, fair processes when engaging in disciplinary actions. In addition to the harm to the immediate victim, such actions undermine academic freedom.