For several years, American higher education has suffered through the throes of racial turmoil. Bakersfield College in Southern California has been no exception. On December 13, 2022, there was a hate speech incident. At that day’s meeting of the Kern Community College District (KCCD) trustees, the board vice president, John Corkins, had this to say about a group of faculty at Bakersfield College (BC):
“I think there’s a segment … a small 5 percent … that we have to continue to cull. Got ’em in my livestock operation, and that’s why we put a rope on some of ’em and take ’em to the slaughterhouse.”
Corkins later apologized for his eliminationist words. It is now clear his apology was hollow.
Four months after Corkins made his slaughterhouse threat, a tenured professor of history, Matthew Garrett, was the first to be led to the slaughter. Others will no doubt follow. The trustees stripped Garrett of his tenure and dismissed him from Bakersfield College. They did so on the recommendation of the college’s interim president, Zav Dadabhoy, who leveled a number of accusations against Garrett, among them that he had engaged in “immoral or unprofessional conduct,” “dishonesty,” “unsatisfactory performance,” “evident unfitness for service,” “persistent violation of, or refusal to obey” [various laws governing schools and colleges], “willful refusal to perform regular assignments without reasonable cause,” as well as a grab-bag of other offenses such as “defending vandalism,” hate speech, both on campus and on social media, airing potential abuse of funds by the BC administration, and hurting the feelings of colleagues and students.
It took Dadabhoy nineteen pages to lay out all his accusations against Garrett, but he could have saved himself a lot of ink by outlining Garrett’s real crime: he had been instrumental in organizing a group of twenty-three BC colleagues into the Renegade Institute for Liberty, or RIFL. Don’t let the name mislead you: Bakersfield College’s mascot is the Renegade. RIFL describes its mission thus: to “promote diversity of thought and intellectual literacy through the free and open discourse of American ideals, including civil, economic, and religious freedom.” That earned RIFL a brand as a bastion of so-called “white supremacy” which exists solely to inflict harm on black people. As founder, Garrett was RIFL’s Exalted Cyclops. Therefore, he had to be purged.
As academic controversies usually go, this one has a complicated back story. BC is hardly a stronghold of seething white supremacy: only 18% of its 25,000 student body is white. Most of its students are Hispanic and Indigenous (about 70%), 5% are Asian, and 4% are black. The majority (70%) of its students are part-timers. According to one RIFL member I spoke with, it’s a source of pride that Bakersfield College serves disadvantaged and marginalized students who otherwise might not have the opportunity of a college education.
Matthew Garrett’s troubles stem from allegations that the campus was misusing BC funds to promote racially segregated activities and partisan political activism rather than scholarship. There followed contentious meetings in which feelings were hurt. The BC administration took sides. Lawsuits were filed. Students were brought in for a performance piece in front of the trustees, portraying Garrett as a racist and microaggressor. This is the background leading up to John Corkins’ inflammatory remark about culling troublesome faculty, and to the threat being carried out.
Dadabhoy’s case against Garrett strikes us as arbitrary and capricious, reminiscent of a desperate prosecutor throwing every possible charge against someone in the hope that at least one will stick. Garrett has vehemently denied all the allegations against him.
Take, for example, the charge of “defending vandalism.” This stemmed from a sticker campaign mounted by a campus group called the Hundred Handers. Garrett is not connected to the Hundred Handers. Because the stickers contained phrases such as “Never Apologize for Being White,” or “Crush Cultural Marxism,” they were quickly labeled hateful vandalism. Garrett’s “defense” of vandalism consisted of him saying these stickers were protected speech, no different in principle from the more numerous stickers around campus promoting Black Lives Matter, or (more prominently at BC) MEChA,1 the Hispanic equivalent of BLM. Don’t take my word for it: you can judge for yourself here whether Garrett was defending vandalism.
The RIFL Facebook page was also cited as “peddling hate speech on social media.” Again, take a look for yourself, and make your own judgment. What the RIFL Facebook page reveals is a typically rambunctious stream of conservative memes, links, and events (including recent updates on Garrett’s case). Garrett’s accusers point to a post about a campus diversity program, Umoja, as particularly hateful. Garrett’s criticism of Umoja was the racially exclusionary nature of its activities, something that is arguably illegal under Federal and California law. Given that Umoja is specifically geared to black students, you can make your own judgement whether it is a racially biased organization.
As for RIFL being divisive and polarizing, I interviewed three members of the RIFL in a March episode of the NAS webinar series, Restoring the Sciences. Again, I invite you to judge for yourself whether the accusation carries weight.
Garrett’s case is presently in the hands of the Foundation of Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE), which has strongly condemned Garrett’s termination. Garrett is also pursuing his own wrongful termination litigation against the KCCD. We wish Matthew Garrett and FIRE every success in this matter.2 The National Association of Scholars joins FIRE in condemning what we see as egregious violation of Matthew Garrett’s academic freedom.
We go further and condemn the administration of Bakersfield College and the trustees of the Kern Community College District for gross dereliction of duty. Their action is a thinly disguised campaign of retaliation against a professor who can best be described as a gadfly defender of core principles of academic freedom. If these principles are to mean anything at all, they include the right of faculty to hold their administrations and boards of trustees publicly accountable. That was Matthew Garrett’s real crime.
J Scott Turner is Director of the Prometheus Project at the National Association of Scholars