AUSTIN (Texas Tribune) — Several high-level Texas A&M University System officials — including the board of regents and the flagship campus’ president — were involved in discussions about how to handle a Black journalism professor’s job offer after conservatives criticized her hiring, according to an internal report released Thursday.
The details of the report contradict former Texas A&M University President M. Katherine Banks’ earlier claims that she was unaware that the school had watered down its offer to Kathleen McElroy after pushback to her hiring. Banks abruptly retired last month amid turmoil spurred by the botched hiring.
The report also confirms the unusual involvement of system-level regents, who are gubernatorial appointees, in a university-level hire. And the report confirms that university leadership tried to delay the announcement of McElroy’s hiring until after this year’s legislative session ended.
Texas A&M also confirmed Thursday that it would pay $1 million to McElroy in a settlement.
The report released also includes 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.
The report is the latest bomb to drop as Texas A&M administrators reconcile with employment scandals that have rocked the Aggie community over the last few weeks and raised questions about the level of outside interference in university-level decisions that led to multiple resignations, including Banks.
Both personnel controversies were first reported by The Texas Tribune.
Under a new law taking effect Jan. 1, Texas legislators have banned diversity, equity and inclusion offices, programs and training at publicly funded universities. 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. She 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 Thursday show that some of the system board members wanted the new journalism program to “get high-quality Aggie journalist[s] with conservative values into the market,” according to a text message between regents Jay Graham and David Bagget.
The effort to promote conservative values at A&M extended beyond the journalism program, according to texts between Graham and Bagget.
“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.”
In 2022, Banks combined several academic programs at A&M into a new College of Arts and Sciences as part of a new strategic plan to reshape the university’s structure. After the deal fell apart, board 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 had expressed concern via email to Banks and Sharp, stating 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 everything he could find via Google about McElroy to the system general counsel, Ray Bonilla, to distribute to the full board.
The report was released to the public days after the regents directed the office of general counsel 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, McElroy’s lawyer and the university also announced Thursday that it had reached a settlement with McElroy. The university 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 a 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.”
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 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.”
Last month, the Tribune reported that McElroy had decided to stay at the University of Texas at Austin just weeks after Texas A&M held a public signing ceremony announcing her hire to run the revived journalism department.
In the weeks following the initial offer, McElroy told the Tribune, Texas A&M started to walk back its details, 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 listened.
The news of Texas A&M’s failed recruitment garnered national media attention and outrage from faculty organizations and alumni groups demanding the school explain what exactly 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 Texas A&M University System Chancellor John 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 meeting, Hart Blanton, the communications and journalism department head involved in the failed effort to recruit McElroy, said Friday that Banks interfered in the hiring process and that race was a factor in university officials’ decision to water down her 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 ended 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.
In the 2021 legislative session, lawmakers prohibited schools from requiring students to read 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. That prohibition was part of a larger law that restricts how America’s history of racism is taught in public schools.
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 Times’ “1619 Project.” The University of North Carolina’s board of trustees denied Jones a tenured position in 2021, despite a recommendation for tenure from the university’s journalism department.
According to Thursday’s report, McElroy was told the university was stalling her announcement due to administrative requirements.
After the session ended, Banks alerted Sharp that they planned to move forward with the announcement. Sharp told Banks to alert Mahomes, the chair of the board.
Two days after the June 13 signing ceremony, the conservative website Texas Scorecard published an article painting McElroy 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 since it would require 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 27, Banks approved the 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 in executive session of the board meeting 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. It also does not explain Blanton’s prior accusation that his signature was used in the revised versions of McElroy’s job offer without his consent.
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 new 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.
William Melhado and James Barragán contributed to this story.
This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at www.texastribune.org. The Texas Tribune is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans – and engages with them – about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.