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Bluefield State president warns faculty: Support my administration, or else!

Bluefield State College President Robin Capehart speaks to the state legislature in Dec 2021

Photo courtesy of West Virginia Legislative Photography

Bluefield State University President Robin Capehart speaks at the West Virginia capitol in Charleston about legislation that would change the governance structure of the state’s colleges and universities in December 2021.

It’s no surprise that Bluefield State University faculty have “no confidence” in President Robin Capehart.

Alongside the university’s Board of Governors last year, he gutted shared governance by unilaterally eliminating the Faculty Senate, and made it easier to fire tenured faculty by instituting post-tenure reviews with standards so flimsy the AAUP said they can easily be abused to fire faculty administrators simply dislike. 

And Robin Capehart openly dislikes plenty of Bluefield faculty.

On his personal blog, “The Campus Maverick,” Capehart called faculty who criticized his leadership (a whopping 82% of the Faculty Senate), “entitled,” “miserable,” “ungrateful,” “lost souls.” And he bloviated that faculty who filed a complaint seeking help from Bluefield’s accreditor had committed “academic dishonesty.”

In that piece, Capehart openly wonders how he can force faculty not to complain that he’s obliterated their rights. “What is campus leadership to do?”

On one hand, to pursue dismissal on the grounds of academic dishonesty may leave the issue in the hands of an administrative and judicial hearing system that has historically created a very low bar for the affirmation of claims of “retaliation.” On the other hand, to just declare victory and move on would provide no disincentive for future baseless claims and would render such claimants as “bullet proof.” 

If you are truly dedicated to maintaining the credibility of the institution, the imposition of some form of disciplinary action is necessary.

Fortunately for poor President Capehart, FIRE is stepping in to tell him exactly how many different ways he — as the president of a public university — can punish faculty for criticizing him: Precisely zero.

Threatening to fire or discipline faculty who speak out against bad public policies doesn’t just prompt “claims of ‘retaliation’” — it is retaliation. It violates the First Amendment. And it’s not “Maverick”-y — it’s just run-of-the-mill unlawful.

The Supreme Court has made clear that when government officials flagrantly violate others’ rights, there must be consequences.

As FIRE wrote in a letter to Capehart today, “the functioning of a public university is a matter of substantial public concern, and government employees like Bluefield State faculty do not ‘relinquish [their] First Amendment rights to comment on matters of public interest by virtue of government employment.’” 

Faculty are right to sound the academic freedom alarm at Bluefield State. Politically well-connected administrators’ decimation of faculty rights could be part of a troubling trend of undue political influence in higher ed, which FIRE has observed nationwide.

Next door in Virginia, a governor’s appointee said he was in a “battle royale” to influence what is taught at the University of Virginia, rather than a fiduciary of his institution who respects faculty academic freedom and expertise. In Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis and his legislative allies have attempted to eliminate whole academic programs that are politically unpopular and weaken tenure protections. In Kansas, political appointees on the Kansas Board of Regents approved a plan effectively removing tenure altogether, then used that new lack of procedural protections to summarily terminate faculty. Capehart’s reported political connections raise the specter of viewpoint discrimination at Bluefield State, too.

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Partisan or bureaucratic meddling in course content at colleges and universities demonstrates the importance of faculty tenure. While FIRE takes no position on the merits of post-tenure review, we wrote in a recent comment to the Florida Board of Governors that tenure has “been instrumental to ensuring faculty — especially those with disfavored or dissenting views — remain free to teach, research, and speak publicly on matters within their expertise and on matters of public concern without repercussions aimed at stifling their unpopular perspectives.” 

Without tenure protections, faculty are chilled from presenting challenging or unpopular issues and left vulnerable to abuse of administrative power. Capehart, for one, has been brazen in publicizing his intention to abuse his power to silence his faculty critics.

But as we reminded him today, the law is on the side of faculty brave enough to speak out against these heavy-handed and illiberal tactics — despite Capehart’s threats to fire them for doing so. Not only is this kind of faculty speech protected by the Constitution, but public college administrators who violate clearly established law “will not retain qualified immunity and can be held personally responsible for monetary damages for violating others’ First Amendment rights.”

The Supreme Court has made clear that when government officials flagrantly violate others’ rights, there must be consequences.

In other words, it’s the campus censors who aren’t bulletproof.

FIRE defends the rights of students and faculty members — no matter their views — at public and private universities and colleges in the United States. If you are a student or a faculty member facing investigation or punishment for your speech, submit your case to FIRE today. If you’re faculty member at a public college or university, call the Faculty Legal Defense Fund 24-hour hotline at 254-500-FLDF (3533).

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