“If we do not allow employees to speak out on issues, we run the risk of a student being injured in one of our labs, a student being sexually harassed or worse, or a student committing suicide.”—Christina Drake, former engineering professor, Florida Polytechnic University
Educators have an obligation to provide students with every opportunity to learn and grow, and with all the support they need when they’re facing a crisis that they can’t manage on their own. We have a responsibility to be advocates.
Christina Drake was doing that vitally important advocacy work at Florida Polytechnic University. Then, they fired her.
All indications are that her job performance was not the problem; Drake, the rare female professor in the field of mechanical engineering, had received excellent teaching evaluations. What did her in? Apparently, her willingness to speak truth to power and to challenge the priorities of those in charge.
At the State Board of Education meeting this past summer, Drake told board members that Florida Poly administrators had eliminated the job of the university’s only on-campus mental-health counselor. She warned them that on her isolated Central Florida campus, the consequences could be especially dire.
The counselor’s June 26 termination was so abrupt, Drake said, that there was “no time or ability for the counselor to put into place a continuity of care plan for her patients, including those for which there is a concern for suicide.” The university did not even alert students that the counselor was no longer on staff, she said.
Weeks after Drake’s testimony, the worst thing imaginable happened. On August 1, Kevin Masculine, a soft-spoken, always-smiling student who was studying nanotechnology and had been in the counselor’s care, killed himself.
The university could have reacted by examining its policies and past choices—such as its 2017 decision to outsource most mental health counseling for students.
The sole remaining counselor as well as other staff and faculty members, including Drake, had complained about that and other issues, such as the university’s lack of on-campus activities for students.
But administrators responded by retaliating against those who challenged them. They fired a string of employees—the latest count is 15 and includes the librarian. Their titles were all different, but at some point, most of them had advocated for students and spoken out about ethical concerns. Most of them also advocated for collective bargaining. Christina Drake is the latest in that long line.
Today, Florida Poly still has no on-campus, full-time counselor. Instead, it provides a 24-hour hotline and continues to contract with a private company that dispatches a counselor for a few hours each week.
The university’s spokeswoman says, “This model provides a broader scope of services and access to a much larger network of mental health professionals.”
I wonder how well served students feel by that “network.”
Students also are not well served by administrators who retaliate against outspoken professors and staff members instead of listening to them. And I can’t help but note that an important part of higher education is the pursuit of truth and the open exchange of ideas.
Great institutions do not silence dissenting voices and they do not fear free speech. Whether the voices belong to students, professors, or staff members, they hear them out. Great institutions believe in shared governance, in which faculty and staff members have the right and opportunity to be heard, to advocate for themselves, and to advocate for their students.
I guess the administrators at Florida Poly have something other than greatness in mind.
Florida Poly trustees got a letter early this year describing a hostile environment, overpaid administrators, and a culture that did not allow for dissent. It could have been an opportunity for discussion. Instead, the university’s president told the local newspaper that he was more concerned about the “group responsible for the letter” than the accusations themselves.
Christina Drake and other former employees of Florida Poly sounded a warning. They lost their jobs because of it. A student who might have been helped lost his life.
What else might Florida Poly lose if administrators do not start listening?