Retiring professor in Kansas City area claims his free speech rights were restricted over political views

(The Sentinel) — Frank Syracuse, who recently retired after 32 years at Johnson County Community College (JCCC) in suburban Kansas City, laments what he sees as a lack of commitment to freedom of speech on campus as he closes out his career.

Frank Syracuse

Politically conservative, the avid hunter supported issues in the past such as a concealed-carry handgun law, and recently opposed initiatives at JCCC on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) and transgender rights.  He made his views known on the Faculty Association (FA) Listserv, the email system available to all faculty members for interaction.

His political opinions, including his views on Islam, eventually resulted in complaints by fellow faculty members and Human Resources investigations.

The email server was recently restricted to incoming mail only, a 10-day “cooling-off period” according to the FA Executive Committee, following heated conversations among faculty members.  It was then eventually shut down for the summer months as the school year came to an end. The FA claimed the shutdown was due to the installation of a new email server to be in operation in the fall, but Syracuse saw the actions as retaliation for his voicing conservative opinions, and his opposition to the “cooling-off” directive. The professor considered it a violation of his First Amendment rights:

“I believe this was done intentionally as they knew my intent to respond publicly (to the 10-day restriction). I expect further action from them, and they do not want anyone to have the ability to respond publicly.”

No adverse action was taken on Syracuse following the Human Resources investigations. In an email to FA leadership, the professor criticized the length of time before a decision was made:

“The female attorney hired by the school to investigate the matter, a person of color, informed me in our first video-recorded meeting that I had done nothing wrong. It still took nearly three months to clear this complaint, and only happened when I demanded it be cleared before our Spring Break.”

In a farewell email intended for all his fellow faculty members, but due to the email shut down was sent only to the FA leadership, Syracuse called for the academic community to live up to its commitment to fairness and freedom of thought:

“I am 64. I have never witnessed our Nation so divided. We have a direct influence on how leaders of the future will interact.  I am no leader; I have been open about that. (It would help if others realized and could admit that they are not leaders either.) But I would also regret that if I failed to TRY and speak to what numerous, maybe even the majority, are saying behind closed doors and not work to improve that, then I am no better than a person who fails to speak out against a reprehensible wrongdoing just because it might create some career difficulties down the road.

“Second, (I hope) whoever is hired for a DEI Director takes a cautious approach and is committed to building unity on this campus by beating the drum of how we are all members of one team and have less focus on grievances and wrongs from the past.  Focus on the future. How do we get better?  How do we do that without alienating anyone?  If JCCC is a premier institution, and I think it is, then do not settle for what other institutions are doing.  Raise the bar, improve all of us without tearing down any of us.”

We reached out to JCCC for comment on Professor Syracuse’s claims. We received this from Public Information Officer Chris Gray:

“The college cannot comment on any personnel matters and or investigations.  Regarding his claim of ‘shutting down the Faculty Listserv email,’ this action was taken directly by the Faculty Association leadership of the listserv that they oversee, not the college or administration.

“It is also my understanding that the Faculty Listserv was not shut down but ‘paused’ for a short time period, but I cannot speak to that exact timeline and or rationale; again as it was taken by the Faculty Association.”

JCCC president Andy Bowne last year upset some faculty members by saying the college must be committed to equity of outcomes as part of its diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives.  Freedom of speech and acceptance of different viewpoints should be embraced by institutions promoting “diversity” and “inclusion,” but JCCC passed on an opportunity to reinforce that position by declining to comment.

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