Collin College Will Pay Ousted Professor $70,000 Plus Fees in Free-Speech Case

After mocking former Vice President Mike Pence on Twitter, a Texas community-college professor lost her job. But now that former professor, Lora D. Burnett, is doing a victory lap.

Burnett’s day on Tuesday began with her tweeting a festive “Good Morning” GIF of people dancing. Then she updated her followers on her lawsuit against Collin College, her former employer.

The college settled.

Under an agreement announced on Tuesday morning, the college agreed to pay Burnett $70,000, plus legal fees, to end a First Amendment lawsuit the instructor filed after her termination. College leaders have not admitted fault.

“The college may be denying liability, but they can’t deny that Lora Burnett is the prevailing party in her lawsuit against them,” said Burnett’s lawyer, Greg Greubel. “And that carries with it a real victory for her, both morally and financially.”

Greubel is a litigator with the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, which advocates for free-speech rights at colleges nationwide and took up Burnett’s cause.

The court battle occurred at a time of instability and rising tensions at Collin College. Some of the college’s employees have told The Chronicle they are wary of its current president, H. Neil Matkin. Some professors have alleged that Matkin demands unwavering loyalty and harshly punishes those who step out of line.

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Matkin has the support of his governing board, and some conservative Texas lawmakers have cheered his seemingly combative approach to outspoken instructors. In a written statement on Tuesday’s settlement, the college boasted that it had been “repeatedly recognized as being among the best employers in higher education in the nation and is one of the top-performing community colleges in Texas.”

Of the settlement, the college wrote: “Although we firmly believe in the lawful decisions made and anticipate a successful court outcome, the reality is that we have opted to attempt to resolve this litigation expeditiously, with certainty, and, by effectuating an early resolution, in the most fiscally responsible way … this type of early resolution is less damaging to the college than leaving the litigation unresolved for years.”

The college fired Burnett in February 2021. Her termination was the third dismissal of a Collin instructor that ignited controversy. The college told Burnett she was being let go because 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.”

A few months before the firing, in October 2020, Burnett tweeted that a moderator in a vice-presidential debate should “talk over Mike Pence until he shuts his little demon mouth up.”

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The tweet prompted an outpouring of conservative anger at the college. Matkin criticized Burnett in a collegewide email.

Although the president didn’t identify Burnett by name, he faulted an unnamed faculty member for attacking Mike Pence through “hateful, vile, and ill-considered Twitter posts.” Burnett has also criticized Collin in pieces written for The Chronicle Review. Burnett is currently writing a book about culture wars in higher education.

After she lost her job, Burnett alleged that she had been terminated because of “mean tweets.”

Following Tuesday’s court victory, Burnett wrote in a statement that she was “absolutely delighted” by the final outcome. But she cautioned that the college’s problems are more widespread than just her case.

“It was uncharacteristically wise of Collin College to choose not to fight my lawsuit,” she wrote. “For the sake of the Collin County taxpayers, I’m glad the school folded. But I hope the taxpayers will hold the school to account for the accumulated costs of all the lawsuits they are currently facing and all the settlements they’ve paid because they’ve violated employees’ civil rights. Not only does Collin College have to pay me and my lawyers, but they also have to pay the two outside law firms they hired for this case. Beyond that, I know there’s a group of police officers suing the college for wrongful termination, there are lawsuits pending right now from two professors who were fired last year, and the college paid a settlement for an undisclosed amount to another professor who was fired last year.”

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“That all adds up,” she wrote. “And the college is not at all forthcoming about the tally.”

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