The Volokh Conspiracy

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Campus Free Speech

"University of Massachusetts Nursing Dean Fired After Saying 'Everyone's Life Matters'"


Prof. Jonathan Turley (GW) reports:

We have been discussing the growing fear of professors and students over the loss of free speech on campuses for years, but recently those concerns have been greatly magnified with the investigation or termination of professors for expressing opposing views about police abuse, Black Lives Matter movement or aspects of the protests following the killing of George Floyd.  There is a sense of a new orthodoxy that does not allow for dissenting voices as campaigns are launched to fire faculty who are denounced as insensitive or even racist for such criticism.

The most recent controversy involves the recently installed University of Massachusetts-Lowell Dean of Nursing Leslie Neal-Boylan. Dr. Neal-Boylan had only been in her position for a few months when she was fired.  The reason, according to many reports, is that she sent an email on June 2 to the Solomont School of Nursing on the recent anti-racism demonstrations across the country that include the words "everyone's life matters." …

I contacted the University to confirm (1) whether Dr. Neil-Boylan was fired for her statement about "everyone's life matters" and (2) whether she was given an opportunity to hear the complaints against her and to contest the allegations.

The university responded with this statement:

"Leslie Neal-Boylan's employment at UMass Lowell ended on June 19, after she was informed she would no longer serve as dean of the Solomont School of Nursing. She had been in that role for 10 months. Although a tenured full faculty member, she declined to join the nursing faculty. As with all such employment decisions, it was made in the best interests of the university and its students. Although we are not able to discuss specifics of a personnel matter, it would be incorrect to assume any statement by Dr. Neal-Boylan was the cause of that decision."

This suggests that there were other reasons for the termination but, if the letter posted from Dr. Neal-Boylan is accurate, she was not aware of what those reasons might be.  If she is unaware of those allegations, this would be a rather Orwellian position where the university protects her privacy by refusing to confirm the basis for her termination even to herself.  I was hoping that the University would at least say that she was given those reasons and an opportunity to defend herself.  Instead, the university did not deny the allegation that Dr. Neal-Boylan was denied the opportunity to respond and contest any allegations….

If her firing was unrelated to the statement ["everyone's life matters"], the University could have so stated without any violation of privacy. Such a clarification would have put to rest concerns over free speech.  Instead, there is lingering confusion ….

Prof. Turley also points to a story at Campus Reform (Addison Smith) that adds more:

One document provided to Campus Reform was allegedly written by Neal-Boylan and sent to Provost Julie Nash. The letter, dated June 19, begins, "As you know, I was fired from my position as dean in the Solomont School of Nursing…" The author claims that an exit interview was requested, but not granted.

"It is important to point out that no one ever gave me an opportunity to share my views of how the college and school were interacting nor explain myself regarding the BLM email. My meeting with you, [Dean] Shortie [McKinney], and Lauren Turner was clearly not intended to give me an opportunity to defend my actions. I was condemned without trial," the letter obtained by Campus Reform reads.

McKinney did not respond to multiple requests for comment from Campus Reform.

Another document provided to Campus Reform, dated June 16, is addressed to UML Chancellor Jacqueline Moloney and Provost Joseph Hartman. That letter states, in part,  "It seems clear that College Dean McKinney used my email regarding Black Lives Matter (BLM) as rationale to fire me. This is attributable to one phrase in my initial email that otherwise was very clearly a message to NOT discriminate against anyone…It is clear that Dean McKinney used this as an excuse because my performance as dean has otherwise been without fault and has, in fact, strengthened the SSON. You might be interested to know that I have NEVER (in a 40 year career) been accused of racism."

The same letter went on to list 13 "accomplishments" from the "past 10 months."

Campus Reform spoke with one faculty member who asked to remain anonymous. The source said the faculty was "totally dismayed" and "completely floored" by Neal-Boylan's termination. It was allegedly determined that her firing was not due to performance, the source said.

"The Dean of the College of Health Sciences, Shortie Mckinney, had a meeting the day after [the incident], a town meeting… People wanted to know why [she was fired], and what was confirmed is it wasn't a performance issue," the source told Campus Reform.

The employee said that the faculty discovered the backlash against Neal-Boylan on Twitter and "put two-and-two together," determining the reason behind her firing, adding that it was not performance-based.

"After some investigation, we found the [tweets], and some of the comments that were posted, and put two-and-two together," the source said. "She [Neal-Boylan] was a wonderful woman…. When she came on board, it was like a ray of sunshine."

There may be more facts that might shed a different light on the matter; but if the facts as reported by Prof. Turley (whose work I've found reliable) and Campus Reform are generally representative, the University's actions strike me as quite improper. As I've mentioned before, the First Amendment and academic freedom rules aren't quite the same for administrators as for faculty. (Compare Jeffries v. Harleston (2d Cir. 1995) with Levin v. Harleston (2d Cir. 1992).) Administrators are politicians of a sort, and questions about how various constituencies perceive them are more legitimately considered than for faculty.

Nonetheless, if Dean Neal-Boylan was fired simply for expressing the view that "everyone's life matters"—which in context is reasonably seen as an argument that the Black Lives Matter movement focuses too much on the perils faced by blacks from the police, and that the better goal is to try to prevent police abuse more broadly (or violence more broadly)—that's a very narrow-minded position for the university to take. And this position is also sure to send a chilling message to people other than Deans, such as faculty members (especially untenured ones) and students.