In the summer of last year, Essex County College adjunct professor Lisa Durden appeared on the Fox News program Tucker Carlson Tonight to debate about a Black Lives Matter group that barred non-black attendees from its Memorial Day event.
The debate was heated but polite, and hardly unusual for the sort of arguments you see on Carlson’s show. “You white people are angry because you couldn’t use your white privilege card to get invited to Black Lives Matter all-black Memorial Day celebration,” Durden proclaimed to Carlson.
“If you don’t like people excluding others on the basis of their race … then why are you doing it, why are you defending it now?” retorted Carlson, who critics accuse of racism.
On June 8, two days after the appearance, Durden went to campus, located in New Jersey, to teach a class and discovered she had been suspended, she told NJ.com on June 20. Three days later, Essex County College President Anthony Munroe issued a statement announcing that the school had terminated its relationship with Durden. After the professor’s appearance on the show, he wrote, the college “was immediately inundated with feedback from students, faculty and prospective students and their families expressing frustration, concern and even fear that the views expressed by a College employee (with influence over students) would negatively impact their experience on the campus.”
It turns out that when Munroe said Essex had been “immediately inundated” with complaints, he meant the college had received a single complaint the day after the television appearance.
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, which works on issues of free speech on America’s college campuses, filed an open records request seeking communications related to Durden’s firing in July.
After months of being stonewalled, FIRE sued the college on January 3 and obtained the records this week.
The college’s internal communications reveal that in the 13 days between Durden’s appearance on Carlson’s show and her suspension from the college, Essex officials received just one email objecting to her appearance on the program.
The individual who sent the email, Jeff Brogan, accused Durden of having a “level of hatred and exclusion” that should not “be educating young minds.” He vowed to not “rest until this person is no longer employed here or at any other educational institution.”
He didn’t have to wait long until he could rest, as Durden was suspended the same day.
After Durden publicly announced her suspension in the interview with NJ.com, dozens more people contacted the college to express thanks for its decision to punish her. But those communications came after the school had already made the decision to suspend her and thus, could not have been the impetus.
The emails FIRE obtained showed also that the day after Durden’s appearance on Fox, senior staff members at the college were already requesting information about her over email. Most of the exchange is redacted, but it appears that Essex’s Vice President and Chief Academic Officer Jeffrey Lee exchanged emails with lawyers and human resources staff to collect information on Durden’s history at the college.
“Please research all information on the status of the above named employee. I believe she is an adjunct, so I want to know dates worked, courses, etc.,” wrote Yvette Henry, director of human resources, to Laura Byrd, an assistant. That information was then eventually passed on to Lee.
Adam Steinbaugh, an investigator at FIRE who oversees the Essex case, concluded the emails show that the college’s public explanation for Durden’s suspension was less than sufficient.
“Essex had weeks to explain why they chose to suspend and then terminate Professor Durden. Their explanation was misleading at best,” he told The Intercept. “This is yet another example of why the public should be skeptical of claims that taking action against a speaker is motivated by a need to maintain safety, security, or order.”
After being contacted by The Intercept, Essex released a statement Thursday morning addressing FIRE’s report. We’ve copied it in full below:
In the past week, statements have been publicized which mischaracterize Essex County College’s actions last summer relating to an adjunct who formerly taught at the College.
Essex County College utilizes hundreds of adjunct instructors each semester and, as a matter of course, each is advised they will receive tentative teaching assignments that can be withdrawn at any time.
In addition, the College provided a good faith response consistent with the Open Public Records Act when responding to records requests pertaining to this matter.
Essex County College is entering our 50th year of providing a top quality education to Essex County residents and was ranked in the top 50 community colleges in the nation for 2017 by College Choice. We will continue to provide our students with the best education possible as well as the tools to become future leaders in whichever field they choose.