Academic freedom balances on knife blade at A&M;
TAMU’s ‘significant mistakes’ lead to $1 million settlement
Academic freedom balances precariously on a knife blade at Texas A&M University, as state officials and non-university pressure groups drive out insufficiently conservative job applicants, and cancel professors whose remarks offend politicians. In one case, a dissed applicant will receive $1 million from TAMU.
A highly respected professor with expertise in the American opioid crisis was suspended for remarks allegedly critical of Texas Lt Governor Dan Patrick. TAMU Prof Joy Alonzo, a well-regarded opioid expert, allegedly made comments critical of Patrick’s office during a lecture on the opioid crisis back in March. She was given a two-week suspension, but she was found to have committed no wrong doing.
In a second case, a distinguished journalism professor from University of Texas Austin walked away from a job opportunity at TAMU, after TAMU repeatedly watered down the terms of her employment offer.
“[TAMU’s] offer letter… really makes clear that they don’t want me there,” remarked Dr Kathleen McElroy. Conservative voices reportedly objected to McElroy’s past employment at The New York Times, and to her support for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI). DEI is under attack in Texas and in other
This not only resulted in the professor withdrawing her application, but in the resignation of the university president, as well.
The university acknowledged in early August making “significant mistakes” with Prof McElroy, with whom that the university reached a $1 million settlement.
“The recent challenges regarding Dr. McElroy have made it clear to me that I must retire immediately,” TAMU President M. Katherine Banks wrote in her resignation letter.
The applicant, Dr Kathleen McElroy, who is African American, withdrew her application after terms of employment were significantly worsened. According to TAMU’s head of the department of communications and journalism, race was a factor in the university’s decision to water down her job offer.
“The unusual level of scrutiny being given to the hiring of Dr McElroy was acknowledged by one administrator to have been based, at least in part, on race,” said Hart Blanton, the department head. The report was made in the Texas Tribune.
Originally, the position was tenure track. However, after what was described as “conservative backlash” arose, the offer was reduced to a five-year contract. It was subsequently cut back again to only one-year slot, and one from which the professor could be fired.
Alonzo, the opioid expert, made a lecture at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston. One of the attendees, the daughter of Texas Land Commissioner Dawn Buckingham, reported Alonzo’s alleged comment to her mother, who called Patrick, according to an op-ed by Patrick in the Houston Chronicle.
Patrick claimed the remark, “if what I heard was correct… was a false and inappropriate personal attack on me.” Patrick phoned Texas A&M Chancellor John Sharp, saying he asked Sharp to investigate. Further, UTMB issued a censure and offered a public apology.
However, students interviewed by the Texas Tribune only recalled a “vague reference” to Patrick.
Within days of Patrick’s Chronicle editorial being posted, Commissioner Buckingham said the following 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 making any such statement.
And an investigation by the A&M System’s Office of General Counsel, released on Thursday, August 3, found that Alonzo did not name Patrick during the lecture, but did name the office held. This according to an email to Alonzo on March 22 from George Udeani, A&M’s pharmacy practice department head, which was published in The Eagle.
“I understand that your comment did not assign blame,” Udeani wrote in Alonzo’s reinstatement letter. “However, some members of the audience felt that your anecdote was offensive.
The lecture occurred in March, and the Patrick editorial and Buckingham’s comments came in late July.
The investigation found no wrong doing, so Alonzo hung onto her job, weathering a two-week suspension.
What apparently stuck in Patrick’s craw, prompting the July op-ed, was the A&M Faculty Senate’s decision to investigate the Alonzo incident, and possibly the “botched” experience with McElroy, as described the A&M publication The Batt”.
The senate invited TAMU Chancellor Sharp to appear at its next meeting on Aug 14.
Patrick wrote that what concerns him most is the “ongoing outrage by the professors and their official faculty senate and, to some extent, the media…. Their outrage seems to be based on the belief that hat anyone who dares ask a question about what is being taught or said in a classroom at a state university is somehow challenging their ‘academic freedom’.”
The A&M Faculty Senate has a different take on recent events. In a letter to Sharp, Tracy Hammond, writing on behalf of the Senate executive committee, noted that the senate had recently written Sharp to express concerns about the appearance pf political influence in faculty hiring and management.
In the current letter, Hammond wrote, “Now we find another case in which there is no longer the appearance, but actual evidence, of interference by outside political forces to erode the academic freedom of Texas A&M faculty to dialog with students on socially relevant topics in their area of expertise.
“This is not only having a chilling effect on our faculty but is further damaging the national reputation of our university. And it will make it even more difficult to recruit and retain the best and brightest talent.”