Every so often, one of our college leaders blurts out the truth about their feelings and beliefs. In their public pronouncements, they always try to appear reasonable, when they’re actually intolerant and belligerent.
That’s exactly what happened at Bakersfield College (BC) in California.
The story begins in 2021, when a group of faculty members at the school, disturbed at the inroads the DEI movement was making, formed the Renegade Institute for Liberty (RIL). Their purpose was “to promote diversity of thought and intellectual literacy through free and open discussion of American ideals including civil, economic, and religious freedom.” That amounted to waving a red flag in front of the DEI bull, since diversity zealots have no use for any of those concepts.
The conflict erupted last October at a meeting of the BC Equal Opportunity & Diversity Advisory Committee. History professor Matthew Garrett, who has tenure, voiced his opposition to a “racial-climate survey” on the grounds that it had been poorly done and was a weak justification for the creation of a new diversity task force that would undercut the authority of the existing committee.
Diversity zealots have no use for free and open discussion of American ideals.An interesting detail is that members of RIL had succeeded in obtaining some of the seats on that committee by applying for them at midnight on the first day they came open. The DEI community at BC was furious, but the tactic was perfectly legitimate.
Professor Garrett had previously incurred the wrath of the BC administration. In 2019, he criticized it for improperly allocating funds, naming several of the individuals involved. BC hit back at him with an “investigation” and by alleging that he had engaged in “unprofessional conduct.” That led him to file a lawsuit over the school’s retaliation against him, which is currently pending in federal court.
At the October meeting, another BC professor, Paula Parks, argued in favor of the survey. She had brought three minority students to the meeting for support, leading another member of the committee to ask why they were there.
During the meeting, Professor Garrett argued not only that the survey was scientifically flawed, but that there was no connection between its purported findings and the actions proposed by its backers. Nevertheless, the committee approved the creation of a new racial-climate task force. That should have been the end of the matter. It was not.
On November 15, Parks published an op-ed in the local paper, in which she accused Garrett and other RIL members of “a disturbing pattern of actions,” including his lawsuit against the school, bringing speakers to campus who disagreed with her views “by denying established facts about slavery and continued discrimination,” and making critical comments on Facebook and local radio. She also claimed that the students she had brought to the October meeting were “traumatized” by the RIL members and recognized “the familiar feeling of racism.” She concluded by calling for the removal of the Renegade Institute because of its “hateful rhetoric and actions.”
In short, this was a typical rant by an intolerant leftist, playing the race card in an attempt to silence people who disagree with her views. And it worked.
On November 21, Garrett received a notice of “unprofessional conduct” from the school’s president, Zav Dadabhoy. In a 19-page indictment, Dadabhoy threw everything but the kitchen sink at Garrett, charging him with expressing “dishonest opinions” about the diversity program, filing complaints against BC, “immoral conduct,” “evident unfitness for service,” and other vague offenses. The three students were also quoted as having “felt unsafe” at the meeting, which Dadabhoy cited as evidence of “the harm you are causing students.”
Faculty members who oppose social-justice ideology are undesirables.Ah, yes. Another of those academic leaders who will readily bow to the will of angry leftists who want revenge against someone they dislike—someone they want to see removed from “their” campus.
The accusations against Garrett came up at the December 13 meeting of the board of trustees. Vice President John Corkins stated that the RIL group was “abusive and disrespectful” and should be “culled and taken to the slaughterhouse.” He later apologized for his comments, but his sentiments were perfectly clear—faculty members who oppose the social-justice ideology are undesirable and should be fired.
The board subsequently recommended that Professor Garrett’s employment be terminated. The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE) then wrote to the president of the Kern Community College District, Romeo Agbalog, pointing out the numerous legal problems the school would face if it proceeded to fire Garrett.
First and foremost, the First Amendment protects Garrett’s statements that Parks and others found so distressing. Directly on point is Rodriguez v. Maricopa County Community College District, a 2010 Ninth Circuit case in which the court held that the First Amendment protects “heated exchanges of views, especially where they concern sensitive topics like race where the risk of conflict and insult is high.” Much as people like Paula Parks and John Corkins might wish to silence critics like Matthew Garrett, they cannot legally do so.
Furthermore, the vague and subjective standards the school used to justify its action against Garrett violate due process of law. As the FIRE letter states, “Enforcing subjective norms regarding offensiveness or civility on faculty speech also creates the inherent risk that administrators will use these standards to selectively punish faculty who express disfavored viewpoints—a risk heightened when that viewpoint is critical of administrators and faculty within the school.” College administrators cannot single out individuals for retaliation merely by accusing them of vague offenses such as “unprofessional conduct,” which is what BC has done.
FIRE’s letter made no difference. Professor Garrett’s employment was summarily terminated by BC.
Officials who side with the enemies of academic freedom stand to lose nothing personally by doing so.Cases like this one are lamentably common these days, and each time I read about one I have to wonder why school officials rush headlong into actions that may appease the leftist zealots on campus—no doubt Paula Parks was thrilled at having one of her enemies terminated—but will lead to expensive and losing legal proceedings.
Why do cases like these keep cropping up? (Here is a new one that has happened since I started writing about the Garrett case.)
The answer is that the officials who choose to side with the vociferous enemies of academic freedom stand to lose nothing personally by doing so. Even if a court finds that the professor was wronged and is entitled to damages and recovery of attorney’s fees, those costs will fall upon the taxpayers (if it’s a public institution) or come out of the school’s general fund (if it’s private), rather than upon the individuals responsible for causing the trouble.
And why is that? It’s because of the judicial concept called “qualified immunity.” Under it, public officials can’t be held personally responsible for their actions that violate the rights of others, unless the situation was so clear that they must have known that their actions would be held illegal.
Qualified immunity might be sensible where officials (such as police) have to make instant judgments under trying circumstances, but it makes no sense in cases like this, where the officials have ample time to get expert legal advice before they act.
When Garrett sues BC over his firing, I expect he’ll go after the people who decided to “cull” him. If he succeeds in making them pay, the case would send a clear message to similarly intolerant college officials around the country.
George Leef is director of editorial content at the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal.
[Editor’s note: Mr. Garrett is accepting donations to help with his attorneys’ fees.]