On June 8, Lisa Durden, a producer, filmmaker and media commentator, arrived at Essex County College in Newark to teach her speech class.
It was the closing days of the summer session and Durden was already set for the fall semester. She was listed as a returning adjunct professor to teach mass communication and popular culture and two effective speech courses.
Two days before, she had appeared as a political commentator on the Fox News show “Tucker Carlson Tonight,” invited to give her opinion as to why Black Lives Matter organizers held a Memorial Day event in Brooklyn for black people only.
When she arrived on campus June 8, Durden was abruptly suspended. She was told she had to cancel classes and report to the Human Resources Department.
Durden, without an explanation, informed her students, who were still waiting for her to arrive, that class was canceled.
That confused her students: Durden had always told them that she would never be absent unless “she had died.”
She didn’t have a reason. She didn’t know why, until she went to Human Resources
“They did this to humiliate me,” Durden said. “Essex County College publicly lynched me in front of my students.”
Durden was given a letter, signed by Jeffrey Lee, vice president for academic affairs, informing her that she was suspended “until further notice.” She had to turn over her grade book to Christopher Rivera, chairperson of the Humanities Division.
The letter does not mention the Tucker Carlson show, but Durden said administration officials made a point of bringing it up that day. In a meeting with Lee and Karen Bridgett, assistant director of Human Resources, Durden said Bridgett told her someone “complained” that she associated herself to the college during the television show appearance.
Not true, and Durden proved it.
Look at the six-minute clip. It’s on the internet. Google Lisa Durden and Tucker Carlson. Next to her name, it says political commentator. During the contentious discussion with Carlson, Durden never identified herself as a professor at the college. Durden said she was representing herself while arguing that Black Lives Matter had a right to have a Memorial Day celebration in a safe space for black people at a time when there’s a rise in white nationalism and racism.
Considering her explanation, Durden, and many who support her, want to know what she did wrong. Durden said Bridgett told her the matter is being investigated.
“There’s got to be some other agenda,” said Leslie Farber, her attorney. “It seems to me they’re going to make up some reason. We’ve got to figure out what that is and why. Is she too outspoken?”
When I called the college administration to ask, Lee would offer only a three-sentence statement that he read to me over the phone:
“The college promotes a community of unity that is inclusive of all. The general counsel has handled this matter in a way that complies with New Jersey state law. I am not at liberty to provide further details.”
Durden, who wants to be reinstated, is fuming, believing her right to free speech has been trampled.
Colleagues agree and have submitted letters expressing concern and outrage. They’ve started an online petition, with nearly 500 signatures, demanding she be reinstated.
“I find it shocking that an African-American woman would be so disrespected at her place of employment for merely exercising her First Amendment right to free speech,” said Professor Jennifer Wager.
The union that represents adjunct professors is not happy, either, saying Durden is covered by the union but it did not know Durden was being suspended. As a result, there wasn’t a union representative at the meeting when the administration handed her the suspension letter.
It is unclear, however, if the administration has a responsibility to advise Durden, who didn’t know her rights at the time.
Students are fired up, too, about how a good semester ended up in a tailspin. They looked forward to her class, describing Durden as a dynamic professor who had shy students speaking with confidence. About five of them went to the Human Resources Department the day of the suspension seeking answers about their grades and to find out what was happening to Durden.
“I think she was done wrong,” said Demond Hill, 45. “They treated this thing like she embezzled money.”
The senior member of the class, 68-year-old Paulette Jones, said Durden’s treatment is not the way an institution of higher learning treats one of its own.
“This is a college,” Jones said. “We’re talking about critical thinking, the right to have different opinions.”
The past year has not been stellar for the two-year school. Last year, the college fired President Gale Gibson and general counsel Rashidah Hasan, and laid off 20 employees. Anthony Munroe was hired last month as the new president, and you now have this chaos to wind down the semester.
“For those of us who are involved in advocacy, politics, who may hold opinions which differ from those in different spaces, this kind of thing has a terrible chilling effect,” Rebecca Williams, an assistant professor, wrote in her letter to the administration.
“As this suspension will become public in the world of academia — and especially in black public intellectual circles — it will bring more negative publicity to our institution even as we are trying to move forward with our new president.”
Wager, who recommended Durden for employment, said her colleague has been an asset to the college even before getting hired in January. For more than a decade, the Newark native has participated on panels at the school without getting paid, and landed New York media internships for communication students, some of which have led to full-time employment.
Since joining the faculty, Wager said, class feedback about Durden has been “effusively positive,” and she has a “following of students that really liked the fact that she brought real- world media experience to the classroom.”
Durden has appeared on other Fox programs, including “Fox and Friends” and “The Kelly Files with Megyn Kelly.” If it wasn’t a problem then when she was vocal on political and race issues, why now?
The college certainly didn’t mind in March, when Durden was a panelist on a school-sponsored program that gives you a good idea that she speaks her mind.
It was called “Radical Women in Media.”
Barry Carter: (973) 836-4925 or email@example.com or