The Texas A&M University System has been accused of making politically motivated attacks on the employment of two highly respected university professors.
These two separate cases of apparent political interference in the administration of one of Texas’ top public university systems comes in the wake of broad attacks against academic freedom in the state legislature this past session, specifically stemming from the passage of Senate Bills 17 and 18. These cases highlight the importance of robust employment protections for education employees in today’s political environment.
Suspended for Criticizing the Lt. Governor
Joy Alonzo, a clinical assistant professor at Texas A&M’s College of Pharmacy and a highly respected researcher into the opioid crisis, was suspended by the system due to remarks she made as a guest lecturer to medical students last March. Though the exact content of Alonzo’s remarks have been disputed by several witnesses, the remarks were viewed as disparaging of Lt. Governor Dan Patrick and the state government’s response to the opioid crisis.
Texas Land Commissioner Dawn Buckingham, a former Texas Senator who is a close political ally to Dan Patrick, supposedly heard about the remarks from her daughter, a first year medical student who happened to be attending Alonzo’s lecture. Buckingham then called Patrick about the incident, which resulted in the investigation and temporary suspension of Alonzo.
In a recent social media post, Buckingham claims that Alonzo stated, “Your Lt. Governor says those kids deserve to die,” regarding a group that lost their lives due to fentanyl poisoning in Hays County, but Alonzo denies this accusation. Alonzo herself and other eye witness reports from students that attended the lecture state that Alonzo was only vaguely critical of Patrick.
Alonzo was ultimately allowed to retain her job after the system’s investigation found no evidence of wrongdoing, but the temporary suspension and investigation itself will undoubtedly affect the attitudes of university faculty and the reputation of Texas A&M.
With serious punitive action taken due to these vague accusations, it seems likely that this incident will have a chilling effect, dissuading any sort of critical look at the Texas Government in college classrooms. Alonzo and other employees without tenure are especially under threat, but due to Texas’ recent roll back of tenure protections, even tenured faculty seem to be under an increased threat.
Backtracking on Hiring after “DEI Hysteria”
Texas A&M’s decision to hire Kathleen McElroy, a renowned journalist who previously served as the director of the School of Journalism at the University of Texas at Austin, to revive Texas A&M’s defunct journalism department received considerable fanfare from the university when it was first announced in June. However, by the middle of July, the university backtracked their original employment offer to McElroy, resulting in her decision to pass on the job.
Reports state that the decision to backtrack their initial employment offer was due to race and “DEI hysteria.”
McElroy is a black woman who has spoken and written publicly about efforts to promote diversity in newsrooms. Despite the initial public support for McElroy’s hiring, many well-connected alumni and stakeholders within the system made calls to the system administration that were critical of McElroy’s hiring. Conservative alumni groups also took issue with McElroy taking the position.
As a result, the interim dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, José Luis Bermúdez, withdrew the initial offer of a tenured position and instead offered McElroy a five-year contract without tenure. After she accepted this reduced offer, Bermúdez backtracked even more and left McElroy with a final offer of just a one-year contract. Bermúdez even undercut this reduced offer, stating that her appointment was caught up with “DEI hysteria” and that he couldn’t protect McElroy if political forces pushed the board to fire her.
After this story broke, Texas A&M’s president Katherine Banks and Bermúdez himself stepped down from their leadership positions, both citing the controversy that their actions created. McElroy ultimately received a $1 million settlement from Texas A&M.
These incidents are far from settled. Given the current political environment, these incidents will not likely be isolated cases. Though SB 17 and SB 18 have not even gone into effect yet, forces opposing academic freedom are already limiting the allowed discourse on college campuses. Once these laws are implemented, the situation will undoubtedly get worse.
Regardless of to what degree conservative activists and politics in general affected the hiring of McElroy and the suspension of Alonzo, the perception of the event has damaged Texas A&M’s reputation as an institute of academic freedom.