Political tensions erupt at Bakersfield College
Some members of the Renegade Institute for Liberty, a controversial group of professors at Bakersfield College, are enmeshed in an increasingly vitriolic dispute playing out on the California campus that has pitted students and faculty members against each other and prompted their supporters and critics to take sides.
The Renegade members say they’ve been falsely accused of racism and their jobs are at risk after some of them raised questions about a racial climate survey at an October diversity committee meeting. Black students who attended the meeting of a committee made up of administrators and faculty and staff members say the professors were rude to them and questioned basic measures to support them. The students raised their concerns about the group to the Kern Community College District Board of Trustees in a meeting last month.
Opponents of the group, including professors and community members, described interactions at the meeting as the latest incident in a pattern of bad behavior by institute members—including peddling hate speech on social media, criticizing and stalling campus diversity initiatives, and souring the campus climate for minority students.
The Renegade Institute for Liberty, established at the college in 2018, describes itself as a “coalition of Bakersfield College faculty dedicated to the free speech, open inquiry, critical thinking to advance American ideals within the broader Western tradition of meritocracy, individual agency, civic virtue, liberty of conscience and free markets.” It was initially created with the blessing of college administrators to host events and programs after several professors raised concerns that the campus had a liberal bent, said Matthew Garrett, a professor of history and a founder of the institute.
He said the institute is a loosely affiliated group of professors of different political ideologies and racial backgrounds, though the group’s most vocal voices are conservative and its social media presence and events skew to the right. He noted there’s ongoing internal debate about whether the group’s programming should reflect a spectrum of views or “counterbalance” what he sees as the dominant liberal ideology on campus.
“That’s something we’re still trying to wrestle with, what’s the right balance,” he said.
The group has been criticized by colleagues for holding inflammatory events and making offensive comments on social media. For example, a Facebook post in October called Umoja, an academic support program for Black students at California community colleges, a “segregated” program and detailed how much money the district spent on Umoja employee salaries and programming. Another post shared in 2021 referred to Black Lives Matter as a “hate group.”
Garrett and Erin Miller, a history professor and member of the institute’s advisory board, also sued district administrators in 2021, claiming the district retaliated against them after they held an event in 2019 where Garrett accused some faculty members of using grant funds for partisan social justice work.
Paula Parks, a professor of English and coordinator of the Umoja program, said the diversity committee meeting was the last straw and that the institute “should not have an official relationship with the college.”
“What I want is for my students to feel safe,” she said. “I would like Bakersfield College to be a welcoming, supportive, intellectually stimulating experience for my students.”
A Meeting Gone Wrong
The epicenter of the latest conflict was an October meeting of the Equal Opportunity and Diversity Advisory Committee (EODAC), created to help facilitate policies and practices related to diversity and inclusion.
Jordyn Davis said she and other Black students attended the October EODAC meeting to show support for a proposed racial justice task force after a campus climate survey fielded during the pandemic showed some Black students felt unsafe on campus. They were invited by Parks, who was presenting the idea. Davis told the Kern Community College District Board of Trustees at their December meeting that the students got a frosty reception.
“What the fuck are they doing here?” Catherine Jones, a professor of occupational safety and risk management and a member of the institute, whispered to Garrett when the students walked into the room.
(Jones later apologized for the profanity in an Academic Senate meeting and said her comment “had nothing to do with race,” though she stood by her question about why students “marched into a meeting.” She told Inside Higher Ed it was her first EODAC meeting, she hadn’t seen students in other committees, and “it was just a dramatic moment that I handled poorly.” She also said she offered to meet with students to tell them “it wasn’t about them.”)
The meeting was off to a rocky start.
Garrett and other members of the institute proceeded to question the results of the climate survey. Davis also said Garrett made “insulting,” “untrue” and “personal” comments about Parks and the Umoja Village, a designated study space on campus for Umoja students. She told the board the meeting made her feel “disrespected, irritated, angry and unwanted.”
In a leaked recording of the meeting shared with Inside Higher Ed, Ximena Da Silva Tavares, a chemistry professor and institute member, questioned the sample size of the racial climate survey and said the survey asked leading questions that risk “making something about race that might not be about race.”
Parks responded that the survey included a representative sample, 1,442 students, and has been fielded at more than 40 campuses in the state. Garrett and Jones said the survey could still be questionable.
“Who organized the questions, and do they have a biased interest?” Garrett asked in the meeting. “That is a valid question. If it was a biased, partisan group, that might explain some of the concerns.”
He recommended fielding another post-pandemic survey, suggested the racial climate task force be smaller and questioned policy recommendations made based on the survey, including a campus “safe space.” He said research indicates designated spaces for students of color create “more problems, more animosity” and “some students are resentful that they exist.”
No personal remarks appeared to be directed at Parks when students were there, though at one point he quipped that another committee member teaches “bad logic” in classes.
Garrett and other institute members have joined EODAC in the past couple years, and Andrea Thorson, faculty co-chair of the committee and a communications professor, said the culture on the committee has radically changed since.
“It just became such a toxic environment and so hard and such a struggle to get even the simplest of things done,” she said.
Garrett said he joined the committee because his research focuses on ethnic studies and he thought there should be more discussion about campus diversity initiatives. He called the controversy over the October meeting a “race hoax” and described the students as “traumatized” into thinking they experienced racism.
“Paula Parks has whipped them up into a sense of victimhood,” he said. “I’m sure they felt the tense feeling in that room, because that room has been a place of debate and hostility for the last couple years. And she intentionally misdirected those students to believe it was about them and their race.”
Parks said the students chose to speak out of their own accord.
Students “said that it was a traumatic experience for them to have faculty give them dirty looks, to glare at them,” she said. “They said, ‘I will not take those professors because they would not see me as a person, as an individual. They would not be fair with me.’”
Shaun Harper, executive director of the University of Southern California’s Race and Equity Center, noted that students and professors aren’t on a level playing field. There’s a power dynamic at play, especially at a college like Bakersfield, where the majority of students are from underrepresented backgrounds and the majority of professors are white.
He said these types of faculty tensions can detract from students’ campus experience.
“All they know is what their realities are, what they experience in their interactions with peers, with professors, with others,” he said. “When things get politicized, it ultimately creates a distraction from what the students are hoping to achieve. They’re just hoping to achieve equity and belonging and inclusion and justice.”
After students shared their accounts in an October Academic Senate meeting, Garrett received a district notice on Nov. 21, which said he engaged in “unprofessional conduct,” citing the EODAC meeting, among other examples. The notice also said the district was required to notify employees in this way “at least 90 days prior to initiating formal disciplinary proceedings for dismissal on the grounds of unprofessional conduct.”
“I’m concerned about the total lack of due process,” he said.
Jonathan Friedman, director of free expression and education at PEN America, a free speech advocacy group, said there should be a “high bar” and clear criteria for what speech constitutes unprofessional behavior, because free speech can be “heated, poignant, even disrespectful,” and the lines can be especially murky on social media platforms and in public forums. He added that administrators can also disavow professors’ speech without resorting to punitive measures.
At the same time, free speech protections should not be “taken advantage of” to demean or discriminate against others, “or engage in opinion sharing that starts to verge on bullying or intimidation,” he said.
‘Livestock’ to Be Taken ‘to the Slaughterhouse’
The controversy came to a head at a Kern Community College District Board of Trustees meeting last month.
After Black students, faculty and community members raised concerns about the institute and the recent EODAC meeting, Trustee John Corkins responded that institute members represent a small percentage of faculty who are “abusive” and “disrespectful.”
“They’re in that 5 percent that we have to continue to cull,” he said at the meeting. “Got them in my livestock operation, and that’s why we put a rope on some of them and take them to the slaughterhouse. That’s a fact of life with human nature and so forth. I don’t know how to say it any clearer.”
He later issued an apology.
“My remarks were intended to show support for the students who spoke during the public comment portion of the meeting and their struggles with feeling accepted and welcome in our district,” he said in an email statement to Inside Higher Ed. “In the course of doing that, I used a reference that could be interpreted as threatening. I did not say faculty should be taken to the slaughterhouse, but I apologize to anyone who felt threatened or was offended.”
Nonetheless, institute members say they now fear for their jobs and safety, given the renewed spotlight on them.
Miller said as a single mother, she’s especially afraid of losing her job. She has been using campus security escorts and formally requested to teach online “due to fears for my safety and stress and anxiety.”
Arthur Willner, an attorney representing Miller and Garrett, said these recent developments will only strengthen the lawsuit the two professors filed against district administrators alleging retaliation.
Meanwhile, Garrett said his next steps are to continue fighting to keep his job and moving forward with the suit to protect speech on campus.
Thorson, the EODAC faculty co-chair, said the worst part of the controversy is that media coverage of Garrett’s job being at risk is overshadowing the bad treatment of the students.
“He’s making this about him and in that, the voices of the students are yet again ignored and minimized and marginalized,” she said. “And that to me is the most devastating thing of all of this.”