Tenured professor who challenged social justice funding fired in secret board vote

California's Kern Community College District didn't act on termination recommendation during public portion of meeting dominated by Matthew Garrrett's supporters, including black pastor.

Published: April 17, 2023 11:00pm

Updated: April 18, 2023 6:20pm

California's Bakersfield College has fired a tenured history professor formally charged with "dishonesty" for disagreeing with colleagues on diversity issues, including a proposed "racial climate task force" to supersede the gridlocked diversity committee on which he served.

The secretive move against Matthew Garrett followed a contentious public meeting on his fate Thursday. 

The Kern Community College District Board of Trustees, whose vice president publicly compared Garrett to livestock that should be culled before apologizing for the remark, apparently held an unrecorded vote without public notice Thursday, either in closed session between morning and afternoon open sessions or after the public meeting. Local media were confused, with KGET reporting that Garrett's status remained unknown as of noon Friday.

"There was an outpouring of community support and the room hit capacity; several people were turned away," Garrett told Just the News early Friday morning before learning of the vote.

Most commenters supported Garrett, judging by an annotated recording of the meeting posted by BC's Renegade Institute for Liberty, a right-leaning campus think tank he founded with a current roster of more than 20 "committed faculty."

Supporters included a Bakersfield police chaplain and pastor, Angelo Frazier, who denounced the "unprofessional conduct" charges against Garrett as an affront to the First Amendment. 

Growing up as "conservative and a minority" in D.C., Frazier said exposure to "diversity of ideas have made me what I am today." He questioned whether founding father Patrick Henry could make his famous "Give me liberty or give me death" speech today, given "somebody will be offended." 

Liberty means "the right to tell people what they don't want to hear," Frazier said. "Has free speech come to Bakersfield College to die? ... I say we need more professors like Dr. Garrett here."

Garrett and fellow history professor Erin Miller, both Renegade leaders, filed a First Amendment retaliation lawsuit against the district nearly two years ago in response to earlier charges of unprofessional conduct stemming from years of conflicts with BC's older, left-leaning Social Justice Institute, cofounded by incoming California Community Colleges Chancellor Sonya Christian.

The district is trying to prevent the federal court from considering its purportedly irrelevant Nov. 21 "statement of charges" against Garrett, which he made public in a "request for judicial notice" last month. The April 14 termination letter appears to include the same statement of charges.

Garrett is using "personnel actions" to "improperly" influence the court on KCCD's August motion to dismiss or as "an avenue to publicize" his termination proceedings, the district said in the April 6 opposition. It called on the court to sanction Garrett "for abusing the judicial system in this manner."

The professor filed a "notice of objection" with the district Monday that suspends his termination pending a hearing by an administrative judge. He told officials about "my deep sadness that the district disregarded my clear request for an open and public hearing" at Thursday's meeting by shutting out the public from the vote.

"I look forward to hearing the report of how each Board member voted at our next scheduled Board meeting, as required by the California Brown Act" on public participation in government meetings, Garrett wrote in the email, shared with Just the News.

The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, which warned KCCD the morning of the meeting that terminating Garrett would violate the First Amendment, told Just the News Monday the secret vote was "a surprise to us" and it wasn't sure when trustees actually voted. Friday's termination letter says the board "took action to terminate" the previous day.

Board President Romeo Agbalog opened Thursday's morning session, which covered subjects beyond Garrett's proposed termination, by stressing it was not "an evidentiary hearing." 

Garrett's remarks emphasized his "unprecedented commitment to scholarship" and that BC gave him the "most prestigious service award we offer" in 2021 for his many campus commitments.

He formed Renegade in conjunction with other faculty who had grown "uncomfortable with the new orthodoxy" flowing from the well-funded Social Justice Institute. Campus was becoming "an ideological echo chamber" where "dissenters would be hunted down and accused of inflated allegations."

Criminal justice professor Tommy Tunson, who chaired the diversity committee on which Garrett and other Renegade faculty served, told the board it was rendered ineffective via "clever strategizing by a group of obstructionists" who used "unreasonable rhetoric" to block diversity, equity and inclusion efforts. "The First Amendment applies to both sides, to everybody."

After the last commenter for the morning session, Agbalog reiterated "this is not an evidentiary hearing" and said the board will take public comments "under advisement at this point before we go into closed session."

The afternoon session started about 45 minutes late, according to Garrett, and featured a single comment also in his favor. On the recording, that speaker acknowledged being unsure whether the trustees had already voted on Garrett's termination during the closed session.

FIRE's warning letter, which cites Just the News reporting, told KCCD that Garrett has a First Amendment right to speak on "matters of institutional governance," such as his advocacy against "the politicized allocation of college funds" to the Social Justice Institute and skepticism of the basis for the Racial Climate Task Force.

"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," especially when they run against administrators and faculty as did Garrett's, according to FIRE. 

It was particularly alarmed at the "immoral" conduct charge in the Nov. 21 document, which FIRE said was not factually supported and under California law can include "drug crimes, sexual abuse, or child abuse." District officials would have "unbridled discretion to punish speech they dislike" under this interpretation, FIRE said.

Suzanne Galindo, executive assistant to KCCD's general counsel, told Just the News her boss Christopher Hines had retired last summer. His name and contact information were removed from the general counsel's page after Just the News inquired Monday morning, with only Galindo's information remaining.

She forwarded the query about Garrett's termination letter and board vote to Vice Chancellor of Human Services Abe Ali, who did not respond to a subsequent query.

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