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'Unprofessional conduct': Prof faces firing for questioning data for racial climate task force

Leaked recording of diversity committee meeting contradicts basis for charges against Bakersfield College historian Matthew Garrett.

Published: February 25, 2023 11:13am

Updated: February 26, 2023 11:21pm

A California community college could launch termination proceedings at any time against a faculty member based on racism claims that are unsupported by a 79-minute recording of the October diversity committee meeting where they allegedly happened.

Bakersfield College administrators interpreted skepticism about a proposed "racial climate task force" and the disputed student survey used to justify its creation as "unprofessional conduct" by tenured history professor Matthew Garrett in a Nov. 21 notice.

The college removed him from the Equal Opportunity and Diversity Advisory Committee to kick off the 90-day "remedial period" that ended Feb. 20, meaning the Kern Community College District (KCCD) can launch "formal disciplinary proceedings for dismissal." Just the News was shown a few portions of the notice.

Garrett's problems derive from years of faculty and administration hostility to the Renegade Institute for Liberty, which he founded at BC. The institute has 23 "committed faculty," including fellow tenured history professor Erin Miller. 

The institute, which promotes "diversity of thought and intellectual literacy" and the ideals of classical liberalism, has a reputation for challenging social justice orthodoxy, including the work of BC's Social Justice Institute (SJI), cofounded by a former president.

Garrett and Miller received an earlier notice of unprofessional conduct based on a September 2019 event they hosted. While Garrett criticized BC for funding a social justice agenda, KCCD said he and Miller actually accused SJI's leaders of misappropriation of grant funds, prompting the duo to file a First Amendment retaliation lawsuit that is ongoing.

In recent years, Renegade faculty got on the first-come, first-serve diversity committee by volunteering as soon as nominations opened at midnight, prompting a fight over their "concerted effort ... to take over the faculty seats" by not waiting for "business hours" to self-nominate. The Academic Senate voted to recognize the midnight nominations in September.

English professor Paula Parks surprised the committee at its October meeting by bringing students from Umoja, the black mentorship program she coordinates, as a show of support for her proposed racial climate task force, which might usurp the committee's jurisdiction.

That prompted risk management professor Catherine Jones to ask Garrett "why the f*** are they here?" Jones later apologized but told the Academic Senate she saw the students as pawns for Parks' agenda, Kern Sol News reported.

The Nov. 21 notice to Garrett quotes complaints about the meeting by three unidentified BC students to illustrate the "very real harm you are causing" students at large. 

One felt that "a few people inside of the room" didn't care about the "safety and education" of black students and would fail them in class, while another said Jones' expletive made them feel like "we weren't supposed to be in that meeting."

The third quotes from a public statement by Jordyn Davis, who said Garrett "insult[ed] Dr. Parks and her way of teaching" and attributed a quote to him: "Dr. Parks way of teaching is not ... [sic]." Davis said she "did not feel safe in that room" even though "nothing was said towards me directly."

In an October op-ed for Kern Sol News, Parks said the Renegade faculty on the committee "are part of a disturbing pattern of actions led by" Garrett. Her students were "traumatized by the hostile reception" from the Renegade faculty and "recognize the sadly familiar feeling of racism."

Parks made further allegations at a KCCD board of trustees meeting where Vice President John Corkins implied the Renegade faculty were livestock to be culled. Corkins later apologized for the comparison.

Just the News reviewed a recording of the October meeting, which shows Garrett never referred to Parks or her teaching or made racially directed comments except to warn that "safe spaces" can create more racial "animosity" than they resolve. 

It was an occasionally chaotic meeting that ran long over its set time. Garrett and Jones both warned at the start the diversity committee had an inconsistent tally of voting members, and confusion frequently arose over what was being voted on. 

Parks shared the results of a survey of BC students, originally designed by the University of Southern California Race and Equity Center, that showed students of color have far higher rates of "feelings of loneliness," academic decline "as a result of racial stress" and race-based "physical aggression" and "verbal attack" than white students.  

Renegade faculty challenged the wording of the survey as well as its timing during COVID-19 shutdowns, when students were off campus. 

Chemistry professor Ximena Da Silva asked whether it was a "representative sample" of BC students, just 1,300 out of 33,000, and said the questions were "leading students to answer a certain way," noting it asked them to compare white and nonwhite faculty. 

As a scientist, "I could not possibly have done a better job" designing a survey "to get the results that I'm looking for as opposed to the actual real data," she said, asking colleagues why they were using a "morality cudgel" to overcome opposition.

When Parks responded that the results were in line with other campuses that used the USC survey, Jones retorted that this "doesn't make the questions right." She and Parks argued over whether the task force was usurping or supplementing the committee's work.

Garrett called for another survey to verify the COVID-era survey "taken at a hot spot in a little strange window of time." He questioned the "repeated appeals to popularity" and authority "as evidence of truth" and the objectivity of the USC entity that designed the survey.

"I'd love to see evidence that connects the observed data with the actual solutions that are recommended because I see a huge gap between them," Garrett said, suggesting the committee designate several members representing different constituencies to form a task force as an alternative to Parks' proposal.

Faculty cochair Andrea Thorson told Inside Higher Ed the committee had become "such a toxic environment" since the Renegade faculty joined, making it "such a struggle to get even the simplest of things done." Members reflected that sentiment at the meeting.

"The problem ... with this committee is we spend too much time dissecting data, challenging processes, challenging procedures, and we're not doing the work," Athletics Director Reggie Bolton said.

"We can't undermine just because not enough of our students voted," Rising Scholars program manager Diana Alcala said, asking colleagues to "stop wasting time." 

The fact that there's a debate on "the validity of the data" actually supports creation of Parks' task force, Dean of Instruction Richard McCrow said. 

When biology professor and Renegade faculty Joe Saldivar asked to delay the vote to the next meeting because this was the first time the committee even learned "the tasks" of the task force, Thorson responded that this was "rather urgent." The committee approved a motion supporting Parks' proposal.

The racial climate task force wasn't even the most contentious item on the agenda. When Da Silva challenged a proposal to give non-tenured "classified" staff the same representation on the committee as faculty, warning the former face "pressure to vote a certain way because your jobs are on the line," classified staff loudly denounced her for supposedly insulting them.

"I'm a former faculty member," Bolton said. "I would never think my tenure gives me the ability to devalue another person regardless of race, gender, color, disability on this campus. That's a mindset in this room."

"We cannot comment on personnel matters about Matthew Garrett because they are confidential, as with all of our employees," BC spokesperson Norma Rojas told Just the News Feb. 17 when asked to confirm that Garrett's dismissal process could start as early as the following week and whether BC had reconsidered going forward.

Rojas gave the same response when Just the News summarized the contents of the recording and asked if BC considered challenging colleagues in a meeting to be unprofessional conduct.

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