Free speech group questions ESU decision to fire professor after Kansas Reflector article
Emporia State University students, faculty and community members gather Sept. 19, 2022, at a candlelight vigil to speak out and offer words of encouragement regarding recent layoffs. Participants were provided with battery-operated candles. (Mason Hart for Kansas Reflector)
TOPEKA — The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression has questioned the decision by Emporia State University to fire journalism professor Max McCoy two days after criticizing the university in an opinion article published by Kansas Reflector.
The Philadelphia-based FIRE, a nonpartisan nonprofit dedicated to defending freedom of speech, says ESU has a legal burden to prove McCoy wasn’t fired for exercising his free speech rights.
The Sept. 13 article by McCoy addressed the university’s imminent decision to fire tenured professors under an emergency policy approved by the Kansas Board of Regents. McCoy was fired two days later as part of the university’s purge of 33 faculty members. The university wouldn’t give McCoy a specific reason for his dismissal, pointing to nine bullet points of reasons why an employee could be fired under the emergency policy.
Anne Marie Tamburro, FIRE’s program officer for campus rights advocacy, outlined concerns about McCoy’s dismissal in a letter to ESU dated Oct. 31.
McCoy’s article, which began by saying, “I may be fired for writing this,” addressed the university’s leadership, policies and finances, and provided broader commentary about tenure, academic freedom, and the Legislature’s influence on ESU. Tamburro said the article is “clearly protected free speech.”
“McCoy’s termination arose in the context of this public criticism, with his firing coming just days after publicly criticizing the very policy used to terminate him,” Tamburro wrote in the FIRE letter. “And ESU’s justifications for his dismissal — which include every reason outlined in the policy, ranging from ‘cost of operations’ to ‘realignment of resources’ — are so vague as to leave McCoy rightly concerned his dismissal was in retaliation for his protected speech.”
ESU has said the dismissals were necessary to save money and realign resources, but it was the only state university to use the emergency policy. The university eliminated journalism, English and debate programs, then announced plans to add staff in nursing, computer science, music, art, and diversity and inclusion.
The American Association of University Professors said it plans to investigate the university’s actions, which raise questions about academic freedom on campus and why certain faculty members were targeted for dismissal. The university has said it won’t cooperate with the investigation.
In her letter, Tamburro said ESU’s actions pose “a serious threat to academic freedom.” She said the emergency policy’s criteria for firing employees were so broad that ESU could “terminate a tenured faculty member for any number of reasons, such as being too outspoken, rigorous, or simply inconvenient to administrators and students.”
Tamburro asked the university to provide evidence by Nov. 14 that McCoy wasn’t fired because of the article he wrote for Kansas Reflector.
McCoy said he was grateful to FIRE for its advocacy.
“Tamburro’s letter is an impressive summary of concerns sparked by the termination of the Hornet 33 under an overly broad and ill-conceived policy by the Kansas Board of Regents and executed by an underqualified ideologue,” McCoy said in a statement to Kansas Reflector. “Our firings represent a betrayal of the promise made to tenured and tenure-track professors under long established university policy.
“The letter also raises important questions about whether my firing, and perhaps that of others, was retaliatory. When faculty can be fired without being given a specific reason, academic freedom is in jeopardy. Without academic freedom, no institution can legitimately claim to be a university.”
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