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The “Amazonification” of Higher Education Has Arrived. It’s Not Pretty.

At Collin College, an institution of higher learning in McKinney, Texas where two professors involved in union organizing were recently fired, the president proudly boasts of the school's "Amazonification." The episode offers a dire picture of the direction higher ed is rapidly heading nationwide.

As they lower labor costs and eliminate faculty job security, institutions of higher education are moving toward "Amazonification" where students are treated like customers. (Brunel University / Flickr)

Suzanne Jones and Audra Heaslip are professors at Collin College in McKinney, Texas. Or, rather, they were until January 28, 2021. That afternoon, college administrators informed both of them, one after the other, that their employment contracts would not be renewed.

“As far as I know, I’ve never had a single student complaint in over a decade — which is rare, almost everyone has at least one,” says Heaslip, a humanities professor. She adds that she’s “a go-to person for volunteering and for leadership” on campus, and has previously been asked to mentor other faculty. Jones, for her part, says that the only mark on her record came from her signing an open letter to the Dallas City Council in 2017 that argued for the removal of Confederate statues, though, she adds, she was one of a dozen Collin College faculty members to sign onto the letter.

The only explanation the two educators have for their firing is that they are both leaders of the Collin College chapter of Texas Faculty Association (TFA): Jones is the organization’s secretary, and Heaslip is the vice president. While faculty in Texas cannot collectively bargain, associations like TFA, which is an affiliate of the National Education Association, can provide legal support, and otherwise function like unions, strengthening workers’ hands against employers.

“We are very positive that our organizing efforts are what was threatening the [Collin College] president,” says Jones. Collin College faculty do not have tenure, but longtime professors usually have a multiyear contract. Jones and Heaslip say that they have not found any prior cases of long-serving faculty failing to have their contracts renewed without warning.

“Usually the most humiliating thing that can happen is getting knocked down to a one-year contract,” says Heaslip, explaining that when there are disciplinary issues, “there’s always a process, there’s always paperwork, or a warning, or ‘here’s the rule that you’re breaking’ and ‘here’s the path to get better.’” But in their cases, “there was none of that.”

Collin College administration, for its part, insists there is no story here. In an email to Inside Higher Ed, a Collin spokesperson wrote that the college “did not fire” Jones, “despite any misrepresentation you may have received.”

The day Jones and Heaslip were let go was the same day their local TFA chapter had scheduled its first recruitment meeting. They had helped officially form the Collin College chapter in the summer of 2020, spurred in large part by the college’s lackluster response to the COVID-19 pandemic. At the time, they say the school’s administration had come up with a reopening plan that did not require mask wearing.

“They also said ‘you’re not allowed to tell your students to wear masks. If we find out you’re pressuring your students to wear masks, you’ll be disciplined,’” says Heaslip. Faculty were “stunned,” she says, not least because the school had not solicited their input in creating the plan. As a member of the faculty council, the college’s mechanism for shared governance, Heaslip wrote a resolution expressing concern for the reopening plan. Around one-third of the college’s full-time faculty added their name to the document, including Jones, who is also a member of the faculty council.

There was reason for concern. On November 14, 2020, Iris Meda, a nursing professor who had come out of retirement to teach home health care aides in-person at Collin College, died of COVID-19. In an email to staff a week after her passing, Collin College president H. Neil Matkin did not mention Meda’s passing until the twenty-second paragraph of his message, drawing sharp criticism from faculty.

Feeling that their efforts in the faculty council were going nowhere, Jones and Heaslip hoped building their TFA chapter could help hold that body accountable, offering another means for faculty to raise concerns and look after one another.

That is still their hope. Both Jones and Heaslip have retained counsel from TFA, and they are demanding reinstatement at Collin College. A petition sponsored by TFA describes the pair’s “wrongful, retaliatory terminations” as “a blatant and dangerous strifling of academic freedom, shared governance, and safe working conditions.”

But beyond this immediate demand, the duo want to keep organizing to push back on the corporatization of higher education, a process that undermines such institution’s claims of free speech and assembly.

Collin College president Matkin “uses the word ‘Amazonification,’” says Heaslip. “He’s really proud about the ‘Amazonification’ of the college, and he wants to streamline treating students as customers. We’re there to provide services.”

If Matkin’s sentiments are extreme, they’re also refreshingly honest about the direction institutions of higher education are heading as they lower labor costs and eliminate faculty job security. Reversing that transformation will be a major fight, but it starts with defending professors like Jones and Heaslip.