Texas A&M University
On Friday morning, Texas A&M University announced its president had retired, citing the ongoing controversy over A&M mishandling the hiring of a Black professor.
The already bad public relations worsened as the day went on. The head of the university’s Department of Communication and Journalism alleged that, despite now-former president Kathy Banks’s statements otherwise, Banks had “injected herself into the process atypically and early on.”
The Texas Tribune had broken the story on the botched hiring of Kathleen McElroy, a veteran New York Times editor, and national outlets had echoed the allegations that off-campus, conservative backlash to where McElroy had worked and her past diversity, equity and inclusion efforts factored into the fracas.
John Sharp, the A&M system chancellor, told the Faculty Senate, which launched an investigation, that he agreed with its concerns about outside influence. He reassured the Senate that “Outside influence is never welcome, nor invited.”
Laylan Copelin, spokesman for the system, said that the system’s “Office of General Counsel is investigating … We are determined to get to the bottom of what happened and why, learn from the mistakes and do better in the future.”
But, on Tuesday, The Texas Tribune published another story on conservative political influence affecting a second professor—this time a white woman who was already employed as a professor and whom A&M suspended for something she reportedly said during a lecture on how to stop opioid deaths. A Texas A&M spokeswoman confirmed the Tribune’s new reporting Tuesday.
This new story directly implicates Sharp, including a text between him and Dan Patrick, the Republican lieutenant governor of Texas who recently pushed failed legislation to end tenure and successful legislation to end DEI programs. And the new story includes the University of Texas Medical Branch, where Professor Joy Alonzo spoke, joining in on criticizing the professor’s speech.
“The University of Texas Medical Branch issued a public statement ‘censuring’ one of our faculty members,” Copelin said in an email to Inside Higher Ed Tuesday. “It would have been irresponsible for us not to have looked into it. You can’t ignore an allegation from another university. Also, it is not unusual to respond to any state official who has concerns about anything occurring at the Texas A&M System.”
Now, the Faculty Senate Executive Committee has called on Sharp to answer senators’ questions.
“We recently wrote to you to express our concerns about the appearance of political influence in actions regarding the hiring, tenure and promotion of faculty,” that committee wrote Tuesday. “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 kind of highlights this moment that we’re in,” said Kristen Shahverdian, senior manager in free expression and education for PEN America, a free expression group. She said higher education institutions are apparently allowing outside forces to influence their decisions more.
She also noted that Alonzo was apparently speaking “within her academic area of expertise.”
“One person’s [complaint] was able to really escalate very quickly into something that turned into a censorship of this professor, which, luckily, she has not lost her job, it has turned out that she is still able to teach,” Shahverdian said. “But I really think that this is the kind of thing that sends that chilling effect and fear and across campuses, particularly across faculty.”
What did Alonzo say? It’s unclear, and multiple people, including Alonzo, didn’t respond to Inside Higher Ed’s requests for comment Tuesday.
But buckle up: the Tribune’s story goes all the way down to the Texas land commissioner and, perhaps, her daughter.
The Tribune reported that the March 7 lecture wasn’t recorded, and it wrote that attending medical students were themselves wondering what was offensive after a University of Texas Medical Branch course coordinator sent an email with the subject line “STATEMENT OF FORMAL CENSURE.”
“We take these matters very seriously and wish to express our disapproval of the comment and apologize for harm it may have caused for members of our community,” that email said, according to the Tribune. “We hereby issue a formal censure of these statements and will take steps to ensure that such behavior does not happen in the future.”
The Tribune reported that the University of Texas Medical Branch course leaders said the comments regarding “Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick and his role in the opioid crisis” didn’t represent the university’s opinion.
The Tribune, citing lecture slides it received through an open records request, reported that Alonzo spoke about opioids and how to prevent deaths, including how to administer naloxone, which can save the life of a person who has overdosed on opioids. She also spoke about the state’s infrastructure issues in responding to the crisis and gave out naloxone kits at the end of the talk.
But, as the Tribune reported, “Less than two hours after the lecture ended, Patrick’s chief of staff had sent Sharp a link to Alonzo’s professional bio.” And Sharp texted Patrick that “Joy Alonzo has been placed on administrative leave pending investigation re firing her. shud [sic] be finished by end of week.”
Copelin said Dawn Buckingham, Texas’s land commissioner and an attendee of Sharp’s May wedding, had called Patrick and a university official, the Tribune reported, adding that Buckingham’s daughter was a first-year medical student who attended the lecture.
Patrick then called the chair of the University of Texas board and Sharp, and Sharp asked the now former A&M president, Banks, to investigate Alonzo, and she was put on paid leave for two weeks, the outlet reported.
“Dr. Joy Alonzo said her remarks were mischaracterized and taken out of context and she was returned to her duties,” Copelin told Inside Higher Ed. “She added that she had no issue with how the university handled the situation.”