A tenured history professor at Bakersfield College in California who founded a controversial, conservative-leaning faculty group received notice earlier this month that the Kern Community College District Board had voted to fire him. The professor, Matthew Garrett, says administrators are penalizing him for exercising his free speech. College leaders say the decision has nothing to do with his conservative views and have charged him with a litany of offenses.
The Kern Community College District Board of Trustees voted to end Garrett’s employment in a closed session at a board meeting on April 13, according to a notice provided to Garrett the following day. At the meeting, the board listened to public remarks from Garrett and other faculty members before discussing the matter and ultimately deferred making a public announcement on its decision. The termination notice, however, was leaked to the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, a free speech advocacy organization. It gives Garrett the option to appeal the decision within 30 days, which he has done.
Garrett has been a polarizing figure on campus as co-founder of the Renegade Institute for Liberty, which describes itself as a faculty coalition “dedicated to the free speech, open inquiry, critical thinking to advance American ideals within the broader Western tradition of meritocracy, individual agency, civic virtue, liberty of conscience and free markets.” Members of the group say it’s intended to foster diversity of thought and good-faith debate. Critics say some members have contributed to a hostile campus environment by making inflammatory posts on the group’s social media page and stalling diversity initiatives by repeatedly questioning and criticizing them in committee meetings.
The board’s decision to move forward with Garrett’s termination comes after interim president Zav Dadabhoy submitted a 19-page report of charges against Garrett to the board on March 21 accusing him of offenses including “immoral” and “unprofessional” conduct, “dishonesty,” and “unsatisfactory performance.”
The report alleges Garrett defended vandalism on campus by the Hundred Handers, described as a white supremacist group by the Anti-Defamation League; publicly accused colleagues of using grant funds to advance a partisan agenda; held an in-person event against COVID-19 protocols on Sept. 8, 2021; filed 36 “baseless” complaints against colleagues that resulted in 23 third-party investigations; and sent a threatening email to Trustee John Corkins claiming to possess documents that showed “past indiscretions,” among other accusations.
“Through his constant barrage of hostile comments—which intimidate and humiliate his colleagues and the district’s students—Garrett demonstrated an inability to adhere to professional standards in the workplace,” Dadabhoy wrote in the report.
Garrett argued in a written rebuttal, submitted to the board on March 28, that the claims were false, “unsubstantiated” and reliant on anonymous complaints. He wrote that the district “has utterly failed to demonstrate that Dr. Garrett has engaged in any activity that is not constitutionally protected.” (Garrett wrote the rebuttal in the third person.)
“If you start to really look at them one by one, they’re really just flimsy sorts of allegations, but it can be overwhelming to someone who doesn’t know the context,” he said. “The idea that they can tamp down discussion by simply labeling things dishonest, unprofessional or immoral in order to circumvent the First Amendment protections and to mischaracterize me as some sort of horrible person is really disturbing.”
He said filing human resources complaints is within his rights, and he’s particularly “hurt and frustrated” by the charge of “immorality.”
“If you read the charges against me, there’s not a whiff of anything about immorality, unless immorality is questioning social justice and the new-age DEI stuff, which I would hope that as academics we could have thoughtful discussion about these things, that we could have disagreed opinions and we could debate and we could have discourse,” he said.
He added that there are “great people on the left and right who can have civil conversations” at the college, with the exception of a vocal minority, and his termination reflects an administration out of sync with its employees.
A statement from Bakersfield College leaders noted that administrators generally don’t comment on personnel matters, but since Garrett publicized the unannounced termination decision, the college would offer a “limited” response.
“We do not agree with Garrett’s description or characterization of any events that have taken place,” the statement read. “This personnel action is not an issue of free speech. We support the rights of all members of our community to speak out on issues of concern whether on political issues or those involving the college.”
“Garrett has been repeatedly warned that some of his actions, including unprofessional conduct and persistent violations of district rules and California Education Code regulations, were seriously disrupting the ongoing activities of the college and hindering our mission to educate students,” the statement continued. “In accordance with our rules, as he refused to cease this disruptive activity, we had no choice but to move forward with action, which has all been done in accordance with legal policies and procedures and contract rights.”
Jessie Appleby, a litigation fellow at FIRE, said she often sees cases in which college employees are penalized for breaching unprofessional conduct policies after expressing certain perspectives.
“Policies based on civility or unprofessionalism or even offensiveness … invite arbitrary and discriminatory enforcement,” she said. “Without well-defined standards determining when they do and do not apply, administrators have pretty much unlimited discretion to apply them to speech that they disagree with or someone they dislike. It’s not like anyone is in favor of uncivil speech, but policies that prohibit uncivil speech invite abusive enforcement.”
A professor at Bakersfield College who requested anonymity out of fear of retaliation said Garrett espousing conservative views wasn’t the problem.
“I don’t think that his disciplinary status has anything to do with free speech,” the professor said. “I think it has to do with his treatment toward colleagues and students. I also think that there’s a larger conservative argument about the crisis of free speech on college and university campuses … because conservatives are very interested in having diversity of thought added to the same metrics, like race, ethnicity, gender, economic status when it comes to protected classes and affirmative action.”
The argument that Garrett has been maligned for his political perspectives is “trying to tap into this notion that college campuses are closed-off, closed-minded, woke, whatever, and you manufacture a crisis where none existed,” the professor added.
A History of Tensions
The termination notice follows multiple years of conflict. Garrett and Erin Miller, a fellow history professor and member of the institute, also filed a lawsuit against district administrators in 2021 that is ongoing and that claims they were retaliated against for exercising their free speech. The professors held a 2019 lecture event about campus censorship after Garrett received criticism for an op-ed he wrote critiquing administrators’ response to stickers found on campus with messages like “smash cultural Marxism” and “never apologize for being white.” During the lecture, Garrett and Miller accused professors at the college’s Social Justice Institute of spending grant money on partisan social justice work, according to a determination by the district. An independent investigator concluded that they falsely accused their colleagues of “misusing funds,” which constituted “unprofessional conduct.” The suit argues Garrett’s and Miller’s reputations were damaged for questioning spending practices on campus. (Miller denies talking about other professors use of grant funds.) This paragraph has been updated to clarify what happened.
Further tensions erupted after an October meeting of the Equal Opportunity and Diversity Advisory Committee (EODAC), created to promote policies and practices related to diversity and inclusion. Some committee members affiliated with the Renegade Institute questioned the methodology and results of a racial climate survey, which found that Black students reported experiencing various forms of racism, and Garrett challenged some of its accompanying recommendations. Black students who attended said these professors treated them with hostility—which the professors deny—and questioned basic measures to support them, concerns they shared in a December district board meeting. Trustee Corkins responded at the board meeting that a small percentage of professors are “abusive” and “disrespectful,” and “that’s why we put a rope on some of them and take them to the slaughterhouse,” a remark for which he later apologized.
Garrett received a district notice on Nov. 21, which said he engaged in “unprofessional conduct,” citing the EODAC meeting and other examples. The notice also said the district notifies employees in this way “at least 90 days prior to initiating formal disciplinary proceedings for dismissal on the grounds of unprofessional conduct.”
Arthur Willner, the attorney representing Garrett, believes these recent events and Garrett’s termination will only strengthen the ongoing lawsuit. He added that, if unchallenged, the termination could have a chilling effect on other faculty members.
“Matt is a well-regarded, tenured professor,” Willner said. “So you can only imagine what an instructor, professor, without tenure or an adjunct faculty member thinks when they look at what’s happened to him and say to themselves, ‘All right, well, if something like this can happen to a Matt Garrett, who’s been at Bakersfield College for 13 years and has tenure, why would I stick my neck out to teach how I want to teach and exercise my academic freedom?’”
Ultimately, “the real losers are the students, who end up not hearing lectures that might otherwise be heard, not hearing speakers that might otherwise be heard, not engaging in classroom discussions they might otherwise have,” he added.
Garrett said he’s confident his appeal before an administrative law judge will be successful.
“My goal is to return and continue to teach at Bakersfield College,” he said. “That’s very much my intent.”