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Kern Community College District board of trustees votes to fire professor Matthew Garrett for criticizing proposed racial climate task force

Bakersfield College campus

Bakersfield College in Bakersfield, California.

After a four-year campaign by some faculty and administrators at Bakersfield College to rid the campus of professor Matthew Garrett and his inconvenient views, the Kern Community College District board of trustees — which oversees Bakersfield — officially terminated Garrett late last week. 

The saga began back in 2019 when Bakersfield launched an investigation of Garrett and professor Erin Miller after Garrett criticized the politicized allocation of college funds — naming several individual faculty members — in a September 2019 public lecture about censorship. As detailed by FIRE at the time, the investigation concluded that Garrett and Miller engaged in unprofessional conduct by accusing other faculty of financial impropriety, and in 2021 the two filed a First Amendment retaliation lawsuit against Bakersfield officials based on the incident. Their lawsuit is currently pending in federal district court.

Animosity toward Garrett by some faculty and administrators increased over the past couple years as Garrett and several other faculty members associated with the Renegade Institute for Liberty — a Bakersfield College think tank Garrett founded — joined the faculty diversity committee. Other committee members say that the Renegade faculty have made it difficult for the group to get anything done by stalling campus diversity initiatives. But it was Garrett’s comments regarding a proposed racial climate task force during a diversity committee meeting last fall that led Bakersfield to recommend Garrett’s termination.   

At the October 2022 meeting of the Bakersfield Equal Opportunity and Diversity Advisory Committee, Garrett criticized a proposal by professor Paula Parks to create a racial climate task force he felt might usurp the jurisdiction of the diversity committee. He also contested the student survey data cited as justification for the proposed task force and questioned the survey’s objectivity and the lack of evidence connecting the data presented and the proposed solutions. Several other faculty members in the meeting also challenged the veracity of the survey data. But ultimately, the committee voted to approve the creation of the task force. 

On Nov. 15, Parks published an op-ed in Kern Sol News accusing Garrett and other Renegade Institute-affiliated faculty of a “disturbing pattern of actions” that “created negativity and division in the name of free speech.” 

Both the school’s termination of Garrett and its earlier investigation and discipline of Garrett in response to his 2019 speech clearly violate the First Amendment.

According to Parks, these actions include such constitutionally protected activities as filing complaints against her and other individuals at the school, suing Bakersfield officials for First Amendment retaliation, bringing speakers to campus who “deny established facts about slavery and continued discrimination,” and commenting critically on Facebook and local radio shows about the Umoja Community program Parks coordinates.  

Parks said students who accompanied her to the October diversity committee meeting to support her proposed task force were “traumatized by the hostile reception they received . . . from faculty members of the Renegade Institute” and “recognize[d] the sadly familiar feeling of racism.” She called on the community to demand that Bakersfield and KCCD leaders put an end to the “hateful rhetoric and actions” by removing the Renegade Institute from campus. 

On Nov. 21, Garrett received a 90-day notice of “unprofessional conduct” based on his remarks at the October meeting.

Parks and others repeated their accusations of racism against Garrett and the Renegade Institute at a Dec. 13 meeting of the KCCD board of trustees. A trustee then publicly commented about the need to “cull” the “bad actors” as he does in his livestock business — “that’s why we put a rope on some of ‘em and take ‘em to the slaughterhouse.”

Bakersfield College threatened to fire professors Matthew Garrett (left) and Erin Miller (right) after they said grant expenditures at the community college "promote a partisan political agenda.” (Photos provided by Garrett and Miller)

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Based on the 90-day notice, the district could initiate disciplinary proceedings for Garrett’s dismissal as of Feb. 20. It was the initiation of those proceedings that landed his recommended termination before the board last week. The KCCD board of trustees was scheduled to vote on Garrett’s recommended termination last Thursday, April 13. FIRE sent an urgent letter to KCCD board of trustees President Romeo Agbalog on Thursday morning prior to the scheduled meeting to explain why the board must vote against the unconstitutional termination. 

At the board meeting, Garrett presented his case to the board, while many supporters spoke on his behalf during the public comment period before the board moved to closed session. Late Thursday afternoon, the board announced it had deferred the vote on termination to an unspecified future date during its closed session. 

But on Friday, Garrett received a letter officially notifying him that the board had acted on Thursday to terminate his employment. 

Both the school’s termination of Garrett and its earlier investigation and discipline of Garrett in response to his 2019 speech clearly violate the First Amendment. As public institutions, Bakersfield and KCCD may not penalize faculty for commenting on matters of public concern — as Garrett did here when he spoke about issues of institutional governance — merely because other faculty and administrators disagree with the viewpoint expressed or even find it offensive or hateful. 

As FIRE wrote in our letter to Agbalog: 

Enforcing subjective norms regarding offensiveness or collegiality 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 as was Garrett’s speech both in 2019 and at the October diversity committee meeting.

Bakersfield faculty and administrators have engaged in exactly this type of selective punishment over the course of their four-year campaign against Garrett, culminating in last week’s termination. The first step to returning some sanity — and constitutionality — to the district is for the KCCD board of trustees to reverse Garrett’s termination on appeal. Otherwise, Bakersfield and KCCD can likely expect this round to wind up in federal court as well. 

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). If you’re a college journalist facing censorship or a media law question, call the Student Press Freedom Initiative 24-hour hotline at 717-734-SPFI (7734).

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