Adjunct communications professor Lisa Durden was surprised when administrators at Essex County College in Newark, N.J., abruptly pulled her from class and suspended her from teaching for the rest of the semester. She'd been hired months before on the strength of previous contributions to the college, and couldn't imagine why they were letting her go. Then they told her: Someone had called to complain about an appearance she'd made two days earlier on Fox News. She had defended a Black Lives Matter event on "Tucker Carlson Tonight." (The June appearance on Fox was not the first time Durden was a featured guest on that network. The photo below is from an earlier appearance.)
Though she's received thousands of messages of support, and students and colleagues have gathered nearly 2,000 signatures on a petition and rallied on campus in her defense, the school has refused to reinstate her and has canceled plans for her to teach classes in the fall.
The firing followed a heated exchange between Durden, an invited commentator, and Carlson, who challenged the notion of an all-black Memorial Day celebration sponsored by Black Lives Matter. He described the event as pro-segregation.
Durden, an outspoken media personality and commentator, defended the event as one place where black people could celebrate together and white people couldn't use their "white privilege card" to gain entry. The exchange became heated as Carlson interrupted Durden and called her "sick," compared her to Nazis, and said her remarks were racist, disgusting and crazy. Durden (shown below speaking at a rally) argued that one day for black people is little to ask when "we've been having white day forever," and she pointed to the all-white Oscars and the predominance of movies and TV shows with all-white casts as examples.
But the content of the exchange is only one part of the story: Durden, who was scheduled to teach 12 credits of mass communications and effective speech next academic year, is out of a job because she spoke out. She's received threatening, racist messages on social media and says her reputation has been irretrievably damaged. All this happened despite her stellar history with ECC: Before becoming an adjunct, she contributed to panels and workshops and provided media internships to students, many of them resulting in jobs.
Students have shown their support at the college's board of trustees meeting, at a rally and even in essays: "When I saw her that night … I didn't see an angry black woman as she was labeled. I saw someone who was very passionate about what she was doing," wrote one, who praised Durden as an "amazing teacher" who "always went above and beyond [and] helped build our confidence and taught us the concrete applications of public speaking."
"She's a very positive role model for our students," said ECC English professor Eileen DeFreece at a rally for Durden. "She stands up for her rights, [and] she's a phenomenal professor in the classroom." She's also a "figurehead" in Newark, said DeFreece; she's been honored by the mayor and the city of Newark for her work with young people. "The students love her, they learn a lot from her. … We just want her reinstated."
"Colleges and universities are supposed to be places where you engage in critical thinking," said Jennifer Wager, a close colleague and full-time ECC communications professor. "Silencing professors, and, in particular, silencing a black woman, is a disgrace."
"This kind of thing could produce a chilling effect on the rest of our faculty, both full time and part," said ECC English professor Rebecca Williams. "We want the college to show us that professor Durden will be reinstated, to prove that we believe in free speech at our college."
In a subsequent statement, ECC described numerous complaints about Durden's appearance on Fox, though no one came forward during the board of trustees discussion of the matter. And the college defended its "right" to select "employees who represent the institution appropriately," though Durden never once identified herself as affiliated with the college during the show.
"Instead of defending professor Durden's right to free speech and congratulating her on standing up to racism and sexism, the administration at the predominantly black institution chose to effectively fire this accomplished media professional and educator," reads the petition to reinstate her. The petition also objects to how poorly adjuncts are treated, with administrators hiring them "at will" with little job security, low pay and minimal benefits (if any).
AFT New Jersey agrees. "While we may not agree with every point Durden made, we firmly oppose this lack of due process that led to Durden's termination," says AFTNJ President Donna Chiera. "The union strongly objects to the manner in which Ms. Durden was dismissed," says Lynne Peterson Cummins, adjunct professor of psychology and president of the Essex County College Adjunct Faculty Federation. "It was abrupt, startling and confusing to the students involved. … Adjunct faculty teach the majority of classes at Essex County College and across the country, and deserve the same rights as every other faculty member."
In addition to chilling academic discourse, these incidents take a toll on individuals like Durden: She was mortified to be terminated in front of her students and dreads explaining her situation to colleagues she sees in passing. She wants to be reinstated and "would like an apology."
At the same time, she is encouraged by the support she's received from a broad community of people who stand in solidarity with her and who are speaking out for the rights of adjunct professors, for free speech and against racism. Despite the painful process, "Something good has already come out of it," she says. "The dialogue is happening now."