David Richardson, a tenured history professor at Madera Community College (MCC), and my colleague and friend, is embroiled in a fast-escalating brouhaha concerning free chocolate bars, free thought, and free speech—all good things that seem to have offended certain members of our MCC campus community.
Professor Richardson was hired to teach history in the State Center Community College District (SCCCD) in Central California in 1990. He taught first at Reedley College and later at MCC. In those thirty-three years, he has never had a student complaint, and all his professional evaluations have been stellar. He has won several teaching awards, including Distinguished Educator of the Year from the City of Madera Chamber of Commerce and the President’s Medal from Reedley College. He is universally liked and respected on our campus, at least until very recently.
Richardson’s latest teaching evaluation was just completed by his dean of instruction and a peer evaluator (the present writer), and confirmed him as an outstanding educator. Furthermore, since we community college instructors and our programs are judged partly by our student enrollment, retention, and success rates, and since Professor Richardson’s “numbers” in all these areas are consistently high, he brings much Full Time Equivalent Student funding from the state to our college. Professor Richardson is a top “rainmaker” in helping fund our institution by serving so many students in his MCC history courses.
I mention this last point because some administrators live in a parallel universe wherein a college exists primarily as a business and our students are seen as “customers.” Would that these administrators appreciated Professor Richardson at least for his “cash value.” But behold the nature, the pure spite, of hyper-political wokeness.
On Saturday, April 29, 2023, MCC hosted its first Community Open House. Various programs and departments set up tables laden with informational pamphlets, posters, and Madera Mountain Lion “bling.” Professor Richardson consistently participates in such on-campus, public events, and typically spends his own money to provide additional food and drinks for anyone in attendance. Through this event and many others—including a faculty panel in March of this year on the importance of cultural literacy—as well as his everyday engagement on campus, he shows himself to be unfailingly thoughtful, scholarly, generous, and personable.
Now, Professor Richardson has a political voice. He exercises it with gentle humor, but it was not well received by everyone at our open house. He purchased Jeremy’s Chocolate bars and placed them on the History Program display table for anyone to take, free of charge. From any distance, the bars look like Hershey’s bars, with the same gray lettering on black paper over foil wrapping. But Jeremy’s Chocolate bars have a message that is both serious and humorous, offered in response to a Hershey’s advertisement that featured a biological male presenting as a transgender woman, in celebration of … International Women’s Day.
Jeremy’s Chocolate bars come in two wrappings, one labeled “SheHer NUTLESS,” and the other “HeHim NUTS.” The supposed offense here, by Jeremy’s Chocolate and Professor Richardson, is the implication that gender is related to biological sex. Apparently, this is a thought-crime that, if expressed, “may constitute serious misconduct.”
All of this has occasioned the second complaint and formal investigation of Professor Richardson since October 2021. One result of the first investigation was an administrative directive to sit through several hours of online re-education materials and provide a written response to certain “reflection questions.” One of the questions asked him “to describe ways that he could create a more inclusive environment that did not center on homophobia and transphobia.” Professor Richardson was asked to consider how he could accomplish this in his “school, workplace, home, or religious group.”
As an openly gay man for at least twenty years, Professor Richardson surely does not live a life “centered on” homophobia. He often attends campus events with his openly gay, long-term partner. Once again, SCCCD Human Resources is spinning its wheels trying to overcome a non-issue. Its inversions of reality, like the turtle under the elephants supporting the world, go “all the way down.”
Administrators, faculty, staff, students, and community members who attended the event saw the chocolate bars, picked them up, and enjoyed them. No one objected to them, at least openly. No one explicitly demanded that Professor Richardson remove them from his display table. One person did confront him and demanded to know, concerning the chocolate bars, “What do these mean?” Professor Richardson, not wanting to escalate the situation, deflected the question as politely as he could. Apparently, the same person filed a complaint against him with the college administration or SCCCD Human Resources.
Again, Professor Richardson does have a political voice. He is an openly gay man, enjoying a long-term, stable relationship with his partner, and he does resist the imposition of certain transgender values, as they impinge on his own personal and political values. He is a self-described “Awake Not Woke” gay man. He is particularly concerned that many young gay males will be encouraged to think of themselves as women rather than as what they probably are: gay males. He is concerned that many of them will be pressured (by social contagion?) to receive unnecessary hormone therapy or even gender-reassignment surgery, neither of which are fully reversible.
Professor Richardson fears the erasure of gay males, much like transgender folks, and their allies, fear the erasure of their own community. Tragically, as one famous comedian said, this seems to be a case of “the Ts versus the Gs.”
On Friday, May 5th, a uniformed police officer from the State Center Community College Police Department came to Professor Richardson’s home and served him papers announcing that he had been placed on “administrative leave.” The letter, from the SCCCD vice chancellor of human resources, read, in part, “The District has received information that you may have been involved in an incident involving serious misconduct […] The general nature of the allegations is that you have subjecting [sic] your colleagues to harassment and discrimination based on gender.”
In an accompanying document, Richardson was directed to “Please return your keys to all district buildings, your alarm fob, and any other district property to [the MCC president’s] office by the end of the business day on Wednesday, May 10, 2023. Your access to district email and other electronic systems will be suspended.” Here, “other electronic systems” includes the learning management system through which Professor Richardson teaches his online courses and supports his face-to-face courses. He was completely locked out of teaching and was admonished that “You are not to conduct any district business while on leave.”
May 10 was the Wednesday of our seventeenth week of school, the last week of instruction before final exam week. Imagine the reaction of Professor Richardson’s students when they learned that he was placed on administrative leave, right before the end of the semester. They repeatedly asked, “What are we supposed to do?” I directly observed confusion and near-panic in a number of his students on this day. We have a small campus, and the negative effects of this “job action” against Professor Richardson could not be hidden. Concerned and confused students were literally running around, trying to find someone who could answer their questions about their history classes and about how they were expected to complete their semester.
Whatever else is true about Professor Richardson’s case, it’s clear that our district and college administration would rather disrupt education—harming our students—than allow him to complete his semester … because of the jocular wording on the wrappers of free candy bars, which is almost certainly protected political speech anyway.
The paperwork delivered to Professor Richardson said that he would be investigated for creating a “hostile work environment” and that he must answer all of the investigator’s questions “accurately, completely, and truthfully.” No right to remain silent. No right to confront his accuser. Certainly, no trial by a jury of his peers. No due process that someone accused of a serious criminal act would be given. Indeed, accused mass murderers enjoy more justice than someone accused by SCCCD Human Resources of wrongfully providing free chocolate.
This overreaction chills freedom of conscience, freedom of expression, and freedom of speech. In this writer’s opinion (who is certainly not an attorney) the district’s response violates the law. We will see.
Image: Unsplash, Public Domain