Earlier this month, the Claremont Colleges launched a search for a new director for the Colleges’ Queer Resource Center after several media outlets reported on controversial tweets from the QRC’s then newly-appointed director, Jonathan Higgins. Perhaps predictably, we have since been asked where we stand on the apparent firing, and why we have not publicly commented.
Since learning of Higgins’ termination, FIRE has been investigating and discussing the matter internally. We ultimately determined that the case falls outside of our organizational purview. While this incident is troubling, the case is beyond our mission to defend student and faculty rights because Higgins — the director of a student resources center — was a non-academic staff member.
This is not a new distinction; FIRE’s mission has always been limited to safeguarding the rights of students and faculty. As we state on our website (emphasis added):
FIRE effectively and decisively defends the fundamental rights of tens of thousands of students and faculty members on our nation’s campuses…
Why does FIRE make this distinction? Because non-academic staff have different rights than students and faculty and play a different role in the life of a college. Again, our explanation of why the First Amendment is especially important on campus is illuminating here:
A university exists to educate students and advance the frontiers of human knowledge, and does so by acting as a “marketplace of ideas” where ideas compete. The intellectual vitality of a university depends on this competition—something that cannot happen properly when students or faculty members fear punishment for expressing views that might be unpopular with the public at large or disfavored by university administrators.
Where non-academic staff members are concerned, different considerations are at play. Non-academic staff members are hired to facilitate the operations and services of the institution. Accordingly, their expressive rights are governed by a different standard. FIRE has previously noted this difference on several occasions, including in our 2008 and 2016 statements on campus political activity.
None of this is to say that the Claremont Colleges were correct to fire Higgins. But because our mission is narrowly defined to protect students and faculty members, we have not and will not become involved in disputes that involve non-academic employees.
We appreciate the outpouring of concern for expressive rights on campus. We will continue to evaluate all cases brought to our attention, and to assist wherever the rights of students and faculty members are threatened.