Jan 25, 2024
Top Texas A&M leaders were involved in Kathleen McElroy’s bungled hiring
A new internal report, conducted by the university system’s office of general counsel, also looked into Texas A&M’s decision to temporarily suspend a respected opioids expert after she was accused of
A new internal report, conducted by the university system’s office of general counsel, also looked into Texas A&M’s decision to temporarily suspend a respected opioids expert after she was accused of criticizing Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick in a lecture.
by Kate McGee Aug. 3, 2023 Updated: 4 hours ago
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Multiple Texas A&M University System regents voiced concerns about the perceived left-leaning credentials of Kathleen O. McElroy, a Black journalism professor, hired to launch a new journalism program at their flagship school, according to an internal report released Thursday.
Top system leaders questioned the decision after a conservative website blasted the hiring of McElroy, a tenured professor at the University of Texas at Austin and a former New York Times editor. As Texas A&M University officials fielded pushback from regents and external concerns from conservative groups, McElroy’s offer was watered down after A&M held a public signing ceremony announcing her hire. She ultimately rescinded her acceptance.
A review of the failed hiring also revealed that former university President M. Katherine Banks was heavily involved in discussions about making changes to McElroy’s offer, contradicting Banks’ earlier claims that she was unaware that the school had weakened its proposed terms of employment. Banks abruptly retired last month amid turmoil spurred by the botched hiring.
The report summarizing the internal inquiry, which was conducted by the system’s general counsel, included hundreds of pages of text messages and emails. It provides new insight into the unusual involvement of system-level regents, who are gubernatorial appointees, in a university-level hire. And it reveals that university leadership tried to delay the announcement of McElroy’s hiring until after the Republican-controlled Legislature ended this year’s regular lawmaking session and approved the system’s budget.
The report is the latest revelation as Texas A&M administrators grapple with two employment scandals that have rocked the Aggie community this summer and raised questions about the level of outside interference in university-level decisions that led to multiple resignations, including Banks. The system on Thursday also released details of an internal review of how respected opioids expert Joy Alonzo was suspended after she was accused of criticizing Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick in a lecture.
Both personnel controversies were first reported by The Texas Tribune.
The A&M system’s general counsel reported it could not find evidence that race and gender were a factor in the fumbled attempt to recruit McElroy. But the university also publicly acknowledged Thursday that it would pay a $1 million settlement to McElroy, who is remaining in her tenured role at UT-Austin.
McElroy, a 1981 Texas A&M graduate, has studied news media and race, with a focus on how to improve diversity and inclusion in newsrooms. A&M’s attempt to recruit her came as lawmakers were debating a bill that bans diversity, equity and inclusion offices, programs and training at publicly funded universities. That legislation ultimately passed and takes effect Jan. 1.
McElroy previously said that her appointment was caught up in “DEI hysteria” as Texas university leaders try to figure out what type of work involving race is allowed under the new law. She told the Tribune she felt judged for her race and gender and said an A&M administrator told her that her hire has raised concerns within the system because “you’re a Black woman who worked at The New York Times.”
Text messages and emails included in the report reveal that many members of the Board of Regents had concerns with McElroy’s prior experience, which they viewed as counter to the vision they had for the new journalism program and the university writ large.
“Please tell me this isn’t true,” regent Jay Graham wrote to Banks and Chancellor John Sharp about the news of McElroy’s hire. “But since it’s not April Fools Day, I assume it is. I thought the purpose of us starting a journalism program was to get high-quality Aggie journalist[s] with conservative values into the market. This won’t happen with someone like this leading the department.”
After the deal fell apart, Board of Regents Chair Bill Mahomes sent a letter to McElroy on July 19 stating that the Board of Regents “did not discourage your hiring” and would not question the hiring of an individual based on their race or gender.
But a month prior, on June 19, regent Mike Hernandez told Banks and Sharp in an email that “granting tenure to somebody with this background is going to be a difficult sell for many on the [board of regents],” and encouraged them to “put the brakes on this, so we can all discuss this further.”
“While it is wonderful for a successful Aggie to want to come back to Texas A&M to be a tenured professor and build something this important from scratch, we must look at her résumé and her statements made an[d] opinion pieces and public interviews,” Hernandez wrote. “The New York Times is one of the leading main stream media sources in our country. It is common knowledge that they are biased and progressive leaning. The same exact thing can be said about the university of Texas. Yet that is Dr. McElroy’s résumé in a nutshell.”
He added that he forwarded all information he could find about McElroy via an internet search to system general counsel Ray Bonilla to distribute to the full board.
The internal inquiry also shows that the effort to promote conservative values at A&M extended beyond the journalism program. Texts between Graham and regent David Bagget about McElroy’s hiring referenced Banks’ 2022 move to combine several academic programs into a new College of Arts and Sciences as part of a new strategic plan to reshape the university’s structure.
“Kathy [Banks] told us multiple times the reason we were going to combine arts and sciences together was to control the liberal nature that those professors brought to campus,” Graham wrote. “This won’t happen with this kind of hire.”
The general counsel report was released to the public days after the regents directed that office to conduct a “complete and thorough investigation” into what happened and gave university lawyers the green light to negotiate a settlement with McElroy.
In a joint statement from McElroy’s lawyer and the university announcing the settlement, A&M apologized to McElroy and acknowledged “mistakes were made” during the attempt to hire her.
“Texas A&M University remains in my heart despite the events of the past month,” McElroy said in the statement. “I will never forget that Aggies – students, faculty members, former students and staff – voiced support for me from many sectors. I hope the resolution of my matter will reinforce A&M’s allegiance to excellence in higher education and its commitment to academic freedom and journalism.”
In the weeks following the initial offer, McElroy told the Tribune, Texas A&M started to walk back its terms, reducing it from a tenured position to ultimately a one-year teaching contract and a three-year offer to serve as the director of the journalism program. McElroy told the Tribune that José Luis Bermúdez, the former interim dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, said that there were concerns from within the A&M system about her hiring because of her prior work to build diverse and inclusive newsrooms and her experience at The New York Times.
In early July, McElroy said that Bermúdez advised her to remain at UT-Austin in her tenured position because he could not protect her if outside forces wanted her gone. McElroy took that advice.
Texas A&M’s failed recruitment garnered national media attention and spurred outrage from faculty organizations and alumni groups demanding the school explain what happened.
“How this University treated this respected, honored, qualified, experienced, successful, and tenured fellow Aggie is unacceptable and would have been unthinkable yet for her race and gender,” leaders of the Black Former Student Network wrote to Sharp. “The fact that this University outwardly promotes very laudable principles in the Aggie Core Values, yet you don’t have the character nor the courage to follow these Core Values as the leader of this University reveals the deep chasm between your words and your actions.”
In a meeting with the Faculty Senate days after the news broke, Banks and other administrators said they were unaware of the changes made to the original offer letter.
“I am embarrassed that we are in a situation where we have an offer that was released without the proper approvals. I was surprised by that,” Banks said during the meeting. “However, it’s important to note that we honored that letter, we honored all of the letters, because it was of no fault to the candidate, who was very, very qualified, that our administrative structure broke down.”
But after the Faculty Senate meeting, Hart Blanton, the communications and journalism department head involved in the failed effort to recruit McElroy, said that Banks interfered in the hiring process and that race was a factor in university officials’ decision to water down McElroy’s job offer.
“To the contrary, President Banks injected herself into the process atypically and early on,” Blanton said.
Blanton said he shared “related materials” with university lawyers on July 21. Hours later, Banks submitted her resignation to Sharp, which was first reported by the Tribune the following day.
“Texas A&M cannot have its leaders misleading the faculty, public, or policymakers about how we conduct business,” Blanton said.
According to the report, Blanton made a verbal offer to McElroy on May 11 and she accepted.
In text messages on May 11 and 12, Bermúdez told Blanton that he had spoken with Banks and she preferred the university wait until after the legislative session concluded at the end of May before announcing the hire.
“Bottom line is that the NYT connection is poor optics during this particular legislative session,” Bermúdez said to Blanton.
During this time, state lawmakers were considering legislation to ban faculty tenure and eliminate diversity, equity and inclusion offices on college campuses. University leaders, including those at Texas A&M, were negotiating with lawmakers over the legislation, as well as state funding for public universities.
Thursday’s report shows that Blanton raised concerns about delaying the public announcement of McElroy’s hiring from the beginning, arguing in text messages it was bad optics to hire a Black professional but then ask them to not associate with the university while lawmakers were still making decisions about university funding.
Blanton suggested that the university bring in a “crisis communication team” because “there may be some possibility we make national news of the Nikole Hannah-Jones variety if we ask a famous Black journalist not to share her exciting decision with the world.”
Hannah-Jones spearheaded The New York Times’ Pulitzer Prize-winning “1619 Project,” a collection of essays that centered on how slavery and the contributions of Black Americans shaped the United States. The University of North Carolina’s board of trustees sparked national controversy when it denied Jones a tenured position in 2021 despite a recommendation for tenure from the university’s journalism department. Also in 2021, Texas lawmakers prohibited schools in the state from requiring students to read the “1619 Project.” That prohibition was part of a larger law that restricts how America’s history of racism is taught in public schools.
According to Thursday’s report, McElroy was told the university was stalling her announcement due to administrative requirements.
After the regular legislative session ended, Banks alerted Sharp that they planned to move forward with the announcement. Sharp told Banks to alert Mahomes, the chair of the system’s Board of Regents.
Two days after McElroy’s June 13 signing ceremony, the conservative website Texas Scorecard published an article painting her as a “Diversity, Equity and Inclusion proponent.” The university received multiple phone calls from the Rudder Association and former students raising concerns about the hire. Banks also said she received calls from six to seven members of the Board of Regents asking questions.
“The regents had been briefed previously on the provisions of [Senate Bill] 17 relating to DEI, including the provisions requiring the Board to annually certify that the requirements of the bill have been fully implemented and confirm the System’s compliance with the bill,” the report says. “Regents questioned how McElroy’s advocacy for DEI could be reconciled with TAMU’s obligations under SB 17.”
By June 19, Blanton and Bermúdez were negotiating with McElroy to accept a position without tenure. According to the text messages, McElroy was open to the idea. McElroy previously told the Tribune that Bermúdez had convinced her to forgo tenure and avoid the need for board approval.
According to a message that Bermúdez sent Banks, McElroy “is happy with the professor of the practice.” Texts show Bermúdez and Banks discussed a three-year contract, which Bermúdez sent to Banks to review, contradicting Banks’ claims to the Faculty Senate that she did not see copies of new offer letters. Banks gave the go-ahead to revise the offer, but when Bermúdez asked how much he could say about support from the top of the university, Banks replied, “Absolutely nothing. Nothing, nothing.”
“She is going to have a very rough road here,” she said.
On June 22, as Bermúdez and Blanton were texting about the new offer letter, Bermúdez told Blanton that he needed to communicate to McElroy that this was a high-stakes situation. He mentioned Avery Holton, a white male communications professor who had been offered the same position but withdrew for personal reasons.
“Somebody like Avery comes here and nobody cares. The board will be as interested as they are in the synchronized swimming team,” Bermúdez said. “Kathleen comes here and everybody takes note. That makes things volatile and high stress.”
On June 27, Banks approved the revised offer letters but told Bermúdez to wait until July 8 to move forward with sending them to McElroy. The report states that Mahomes requested the appointment be delayed until after the board could receive an update in its July 6 meeting.
“It’s going to be a little awkward,” Bermúdez replied to Banks. “I’ll need to think of what to say.”
The board discussed the McElroy hiring behind closed doors but took no action and did not direct Banks to change the offer terms. McElroy was expected to provide a briefing to the board on the new journalism program during its regular board meeting in August.
On July 7, Bermúdez, Blanton and McElroy had a phone call.
“Bermúdez does not recall his specific comments to McElroy, but Blanton and certain text messages indicate that Bermúdez did make a comment to McElroy during the phone call about race being a factor in her treatment,” the report states. “Bermúdez now explains that the comment referred to race potentially being a factor for certain outside parties that were critical of hiring McElroy and did not mean that race was a factor for any TAMU officials.”
On July 8, McElroy told Bermúdez she was cutting off contact with Texas A&M. When Bermúdez sent an updated offer letter to McElroy on July 9, it included a one-year appointment to teach and a three-year appointment to run the journalism program.
The report does not address the five-year offer letter McElroy was sent, which she provided to the Tribune.
On July 10, Bermúdez and McElroy spoke on the phone, and McElroy expressed displeasure that the faculty appointment was only for one year. Bermúdez said he would see what he could do.
McElroy decided to stay at UT-Austin and reached out to the Tribune. Text messages show Bermúdez alerted Banks that the Tribune reached out for comment about the botched negotiations.
“Ok,” Banks responded. “I assume all text messages were deleted.”
The day the Tribune’s initial story published, text messages show Banks and Bermúdez expressed anger that McElroy shared her story with the media.
“I think we dodged a bullet. She is a awful person to go to the press before us,” Banks said. “We will learn from this and move on ... Just think if she had accepted!!! Ugh.”
The general counsel report also includes an internal investigation of what happened when Texas A&M temporarily suspended professor Joy Alonzo, a respected opioids expert, after Texas Land Commissioner Dawn Buckingham alleged that the professor made a comment criticizing Patrick, the Texas lieutenant governor, during a guest lecture to her daughter’s class at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston. The Tribune first reported that situation two weeks after the McElroy story.
In mere hours, Buckingham called Patrick, who called Sharp and asked him to investigate. Texas A&M previously said the request made its way down the chain of command to the university, where the Division of Risk, Ethics and Compliance placed Alonzo on leave while it investigated. UTMB issued a “formal censure” of Alonzo, though university leaders would not confirm what Alonzo was alleged to have said.
The case has also raised concerns about political interference in the university’s academic affairs.
The university said Alonzo did not object to how the investigation was handled.
On Wednesday, the Houston Chronicle published an op-ed by Patrick in which he defended his decision to ask Texas A&M to investigate Alonzo. Hours later, Buckingham posted on social media, “When a professor states, ‘Your Lt. Governor says those kids deserve to die’ regarding the group of kids in Hays County who tragically lost their lives to fentanyl … it has no place in a lecture and is indefensible.”
Alonzo denied those claims and said in a statement through Texas A&M University that her comments were “mischaracterized and misconstrued.”
“I’ve given this same presentation about 1,000 times across the state over the past few years, and I also have trained others to provide the same presentation,” Alonzo said. “At no time did I say anyone deserved to die from an overdose.”
Texas A&M’s review said the university’s investigation “did not substantiate the allegation that Dr. Alonzo made unprofessional or inappropriate comments about the Lt. Governor.”
Unlike the investigation into McElroy’s bungled hiring — which included hundreds of pages of documents — the review of Alonzo’s case included only a handful of pages of documents. The system also released a message Thursday from Sharp, in which he apologized to Alonzo.
“I am sorry her name was bandied about in the news media four months after the university had cleared her of allegations she had criticized Lt. Governor Dan Patrick in a manner that at least one student found offensive,” Sharp wrote in a statement.
Previously, Texas A&M officials had told the Tribune that Sharp asked a staffer to look into Alonzo’s comments and that staffer asked Banks to investigate. The report identifies Banks as the person who officially called for the investigation into Alonzo.
The university’s review confirmed the Tribune’s reporting that Patrick called Sharp, who asked university officials to look into the matter. It said Sharp later sent Patrick a message notifying him that an investigation was underway.
“Joy Alonzo has been placed on administrative leave pending investigation re firing her. shud be finished by end of week,” read the text, which was made public by the Tribune but not included in the university’s review.
In a statement Thursday, Sharp said the report also “corrects the false narrative that I ordered an investigation into Dr. Alonzo and am not a champion of academic freedom because I took one brief, non-threatening phone call from the lieutenant governor.”
Sharp said the university put Alonzo on leave while it investigated the allegation “with no initiation or interference from me.” He said the investigation was sparked by UTMB’s censure, which he said was done without providing Texas A&M any information and “unfortunately” still hasn’t been retracted.
“What else would you have the university do but check it out?” Sharp wrote.
Texas A&M University System spokesperson Laylan Copelin said in a statement that Sharp’s text to Patrick was a “typical update,” saying it is not unusual for the chancellor to “keep elected officials informed when something at Texas A&M might interest them.”
“It is not unusual to respond to any state official who has concerns about anything occurring at the Texas A&M System,” said Copelin, who said the system followed standard procedure to look into the claim.
But the Faculty Senate has sent a letter to Welsh, the interim president, demanding that the university clarify its administrative leave policies and ensure they are properly followed.
“From the faculty’s perspective, Professor Alonzo’s administrative leave appears to have been instigated on a hasty reaction that short-circuited reasonable due process under the circumstances,” Hammond wrote. “We want to work with you to avoid that kind of outcome in the future.”
The Texas A&M Faculty Senate is also investigating what happened in the situations involving McElroy and Alonzo. Earlier this week, it announced a three-person investigative subcommittee to examine both circumstances. It’s unclear what the timeline is for that investigation.
Overall, the two situations have left Texas A&M faculty uneasy over the potential chilling effect on speech — and the possible fostering of a fearful culture in which professors agonize over the political ramifications of their work.
It has also raised concerns about how these events have damaged the university’s reputation and could slow efforts to recruit and retain academic talent, eclipse decades of work, and erode the love and devotion that students, instructors and alumni have poured into a beloved institution.
In a press conference this week, interim President Mark A. Welsh III pledged to increase transparency with the Aggie community and pledged his commitment to help the university move past the recent turmoil.
“It’s really important for even great, great institutions to occasionally step back and take a real honest look in the mirror,” he said. “As soon as we get all the facts available to us, we need to make decisions on how we prevent getting into these situations in the future.”
William Melhado and James Barragán contributed to this story.
Disclosure: Texas A&M University, New York Times, Texas A&M University System and University of Texas at Austin have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.
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