Surprise! Essex County College Administrators Lied

BY HANK REICHMAN

Last June I posted a piece to this blog praising conservative scholar Jonathan Marks for his forthright defense of the academic freedom of Black Lives Matter activist Lisa Durden, who was dismissed from her part-time teaching position at Essex County College in New Jersey after she argued with the odious Tucker Carlson on Fox News that black people have the right to limit attendance at some meetings to those of their own heritage and ethnicity.  I wrote: “there can be little doubt that the college’s handling of the case was beyond atrocious.  Even though the institution was never mentioned on the program and Durden said nothing remotely suggesting violence, school administrators swiftly ran to the media to denounce her, boasting that she would never teach there again.  This, without question, amounts to a total violation of the most basic principles of academic freedom.”

Following Durden’s dismissal Essex County College president Anthony Munroe released a statement claiming that after her Fox appearance, the “College was immediately inundated with feedback from students, faculty and prospective students and their families expressing frustration, concern and even fear” about “the views expressed by a College employee.”  Munroe acknowledged that Durden “was in no way claiming to represent the views and beliefs of the College.”  In fact, her relationship with Essex was never mentioned during the encounter with Carlson or in subsequent coverage on Fox News.  Still, Munroe argued that “[w]hen the administration receives an outpouring of concern regarding [the] student body, it is [the college’s] responsibility to investigate those concerns,” and that the college had a “right to select employees who represent the institution appropriately.”  Munroe thought his statement was so important that he read it himself and posted it to YouTube!

How many people and precisely who were complaining about Durden?  That’s the question the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) posed to the college when, on July 13, they “issued a request under New Jersey’s Open Public Records Act asking Essex to produce copies of any emails (or similar records) referencing Durden received in the first few days following her appearance, as well as any records reflecting the ‘feedback’ Munroe referenced.”  The college stonewalled, so FIRE filed suit.  This month, FIRE reports, “Essex finally produced the ‘volume of record’ that took nearly six months to prepare: a total of 194 pages of emails (mostly between administrators), one voicemail message, and 123 pages of lists of adjunct faculty with no apparent relevance to our request.”

And guess what?  Those records completely contradict Munroe’s account.  Here’s what FIRE found:

Essex County College’s internal records do not support its leadership’s claims that it was “immediately inundated” with “feedback from students, faculty and prospective students and their families expressing frustration, concern and even fear” about Durden’s views. To the contrary, the records indicate that administrators had already decided to take action before any member of the public contacted them. And, for the first 13 days after Durden’s appearance, only one person contacted the college to complain.

On June 7, the morning after Durden’s appearance on Fox News, Essex’s Vice President and Chief Academic Officer, Jeffrey Lee, emailed Essex’s in-house lawyers, sparking a chain of emails among the college’s leadership and human resources staff, which was instructed to “research all information on the status of” Durden.” It’s not clear how Lee learned of Durden’s appearance.

The first record of any member of the public contacting Essex County College is on June 8 — two days after Durden’s appearance.  At 8:20 a.m., an individual with no apparent relationship to the college emailed Essex president Anthony Munroe, demanding Durden’s termination.  Nine minutes later, Essex’s lawyer responded to him:

Thank you for expressing your concerns.  This matter was brought to the Administration’s attention yesterday, and the College responded in a manner that comports with applicable law.

Nine minutes after that, Lee informed Munroe that Durden “is a Humanities Adjunct” who “was scheduled” to teach in the coming fall semester.  Note the past tense.  (In fact, Essex had assigned Durden to teach courses in the fall semester the day of her appearance on Fox News, suggesting that the college was satisfied with her performance.)  By 10:07 a.m., Lee’s emails were referencing Durden’s “removal” from the course she was currently teaching.

For the next 12 days, the only records of “feedback” about Durden are two emails from professors: one defending her and another joking about the controversy: “only at Essex!”  In other words, for the first two weeks after Durden’s appearance, the college was “inundated” by three emails — if you count the one in support of Durden.

It was not until June 20, when NJ.com reported that Essex had suspended Durden, that complaints began to arrive.  Indeed, before then, FIRE reports, “there’s no record of objections, much less an avalanche of students expressing ‘fear’.”  It was only after the public disclosure of the college’s action that “Essex administrators received 29 emails, two Facebook messages, and an unknown number of phone calls resulting in a single voicemail.”  FIRE adds:

Even if this could be characterized as being “inundated” with feedback, it certainly wasn’t from “students, faculty and prospective students,” as Munroe claimed.  While a few emails, and an unknown number of phone calls, claimed some relationship with the college (or, in one case, the possibility that “my beautiful Irish daughter” might one day attend the school), most were from out-of-state residents, unlikely to ever enroll at a college in Newark, New Jersey. (One, from North Carolina, thanked administrators for “standing up for all, not just liberals or blacks”; another, who “grew up in the 60’s,” expressed alarm that Durden “is a Black Lives supporter which there in itself is alarming that she is in a classroom.”) Administrators receiving the emails even joked about emails from far away; in response to an email saying “Thank you Sir for standing up for our children,” Lee added: “Bradford County, FL checking in.”

Essex’s leadership, however, sought to justify its suspension and termination of Durden by invoking the spectre of complaints from fearful students and their families, and the impact on the college. But Essex’s own records show that the “impact” was entirely self-inflicted by the college’s own leadership.

In short, the Essex administration lied, plain and simple.  That shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise, however.  As the New York Times reported in September, the school’s administration has been embroiled in controversy and its accreditation is endangered.  The accrediting agency has warned “that the college is in danger of losing its accreditation because it lacks financial controls, has a poor governance structure and conflict-of-interest rules, and struggles to retain students. The school has also been warned by the U.S. Department of Education for submitting late audits.”  FIRE also points out that the accreditor “requires institutions to ‘demonstrate[] … a commitment to academic freedom, intellectual freedom, [and] freedom of expression.’)”

But, as FIRE rightly concludes,

At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter whether Essex received one complaint or a thousand.  College professors should be able to engage in rough-and-tumble debates on television.  That necessarily means that people might complain, and some on campus might feel uncomfortable.  And the First Amendment, as we pointed out when Durden was terminated, prohibits a public university from terminating faculty who speak out on matters of public concern.  While it wouldn’t protect a professor who engaged in discrimination against students — and there is no allegation of that here — it does protect faculty who express views that others find offensive.

When administrators claim that their actions are necessary to quell an outpouring of concern (or, in some cases, threats of violence), it demonstrates their institutions’ unwillingness to absorb the cost of employing professors who speak publicly about matters of public concern.  When this unprincipled justification is offered, it should be criticized; when it is advanced without transparency, it should be doubted.

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