• Confessions of a Community College Dean

    In which a veteran of cultural studies seminars in the 1990s moves into academic administration and finds himself a married suburban father of two. Foucault, plus lawn care.

Title

Educating the Powerful

The case of L. D. Burnett.

October 19, 2020
 
 

I’ve been following the story of L. D. Burnett, a history professor at Collin College, with a mix of fascination and horror. (Full disclosure: Although we don’t know each other personally, and have never corresponded directly, we’ve followed each other on Twitter for some time.) She had tweeted some snarky criticism of Vice President Pence in the context of his debate with Senator Harris; it was nothing worse than what one would hear in a hallway, if we still heard things in hallways. It was neither profane nor hateful toward any particular group, and it was far less inflammatory than President Trump’s response to the same debate. Having seen the tweets themselves, I consider them unremarkable.

The president of Collin College, Neil Matkin, saw them differently. In a public statement, he referred to the tweets as “hateful” and “vile” -- a bit pearl-clutchy for my taste, but within bounds -- and implied that they “resort to profanity.” Maybe it’s a regional thing, but by New Jersey standards, absolutely nothing in her tweets even approached profanity. So that’s odd.

But it gets darker. In an all-campus email sent before he even contacted Burnett, President Matkin wrote the following:

We are not aware of an issue with academic freedom nor is the scholarship of the faculty member in question. The college’s execution of its personnel policies will not be played out in a public manner …

Again, maybe it’s a regional thing. From here, it reads like “that sure is a nice job you have there. It sure would be a shame if something happened to it.” Although there’s technically some ambiguity in the language, any culturally fluent reader would interpret it as a threat. The choice of the word “execution” is particularly striking.

For context, Collin College is in the suburbs of Dallas. It’s a politically and culturally conservative area. I would imagine that a president of a college in that setting has to be aware of the sensitivities of community members -- especially employers -- and local elected officials. Given the financial precarity of many public institutions, they need allies across the political spectrum. I can certainly believe that some of the short-term political response was negative and threatening.

In reflecting on it -- and I admit being lucky to be far enough removed from the situation to be able to reflect on it -- I’ve come up with two scenarios that fit the fact pattern. One is generous to Matkin, and one is not.

The generous reading is that he knows full well that nothing Burnett wrote comes anywhere close to a termination offense. Because it doesn’t. But he also knows that many powerful people in the community either don’t know that or wouldn’t accept it if they did. So he has to perform a convincing bit of Outrage Theater to appease the angry external parties, even while leaving himself enough wiggle room not to actually get into a battle he can’t win. Insisting -- correctly -- that personnel matters are confidential gives him an excuse to deflect discussion until the moment passes and some other shiny object captures public attention. In the meantime, he can send some face-saving memo to Burnett castigating tone and sounding vaguely menacing, but without actually doing anything. That way, if he’s challenged later, he can mutter something about a paper trail before changing the subject.

Admittedly, this may be more generous than the facts can sustain. If this were the correct interpretation, I would have expected him to at least have met with her prior to a public statement. She indicated that he has not. I also would have expected him to mention something about the genuinely alarming torrents of physical threats she received from the outside; knowing that the FBI recently broke up a plot by right-wing fanatics to kidnap the governor of Michigan, it would be negligent not to take serious notice of that sort of abuse. To my knowledge, he has thus far failed to do that, too.

The more discouraging interpretation is that he simply doesn’t understand the implications of what he’s doing. If that’s true, then that’s genuinely alarming.

A college president -- whether community college, research university or whatever else -- should have a big-picture understanding of some key concepts. Those should include free speech, free inquiry, academic freedom, the notion of a public good and the fundamental truth that higher education is more than just the personnel office for the economy. These are more than just pretty words to trot out in graduation speeches; they’re the point of the entire enterprise. They’re worth sacrifice.

In some contexts, that may require educating the powerful. That’s much harder than it sounds. Powerful people have a lot to do and are often quite sure that they’re right. They often stick with what got them there. Presidents need to be able to tell the story of higher education to people from all sorts of backgrounds, and to do so before crises hit. Ideally, that might head off some unproductive conflicts before they happen. Even when it doesn’t do that, it can build enough trust for the leader to be able to pull the muckety-mucks aside when something flares up and say something to the effect of “trust me on this one.” But to do that, you have to build trust first.

In the wake of a political movement consciously designed to denigrate any expertise outside of making money, that’s an uphill battle. It’s hard, and getting harder. But it’s necessary. Anyone with a grasp of history knows that there’s no appeasing a purity movement; one kill simply whets its appetite for the next one. You can’t split the difference with thought police, and it’s foolish even to try. Matters of principle may seem abstract, but when principles are missing, the gap is palpable. Higher education needs leaders who can speak that language clearly, before it’s too late.

Burnett did nothing wrong. She expressed her views as a citizen, which she has every right to do. Here’s hoping that her president knows that -- or at least figures it out before doing something deeply stupid.

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