Chris Jarvis/Texas A&M University Division of Marketing and Communications
Texas A&M University’s attempt to revive its journalism program has become a public relations nightmare.
On June 13, the university announced, “A veteran journalist with more than 40 years of experience has been hired to direct Texas A&M University’s new journalism program.” The journalist was Kathleen McElroy, an A&M alumna and former New York Times editor who recently had been director of the University of Texas at Austin School of Journalism.
The university said it ended its half-century-old journalism department and degree nearly 20 years ago. Now, McElroy was going to lead the new journalism major.
Texas A&M announced this homecoming with an appointment letter signing ceremony for her, complete with a photograph of McElroy and José Luis Bermúdez, interim dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, posing together with an Aggie shirt.
“There is so much trust in A&M and the Aggie core values, and we want to position the planned new journalism degrees and program as an integral part of the Aggie brand,” the university quoted McElroy as saying.
But, per McElroy’s telling, A&M betrayed that trust.
Last week, The Texas Tribune published a scoop: McElroy told the Tribune she had turned down the position after A&M changed its tenured position offer to a one-year, at-will contract.
McElroy said that Bermúdez told her there was “noise in the [university] system” about her and, when she pressed him, he said, “You’re a Black woman who worked at The New York Times.” Texas Scorecard had written an article on her subtitled “State law will soon ban DEI offices in universities, but state universities can still continue hiring DEI proponents.” It reported she “has focused on race and its intersection with journalism in her Ph.D. program at UT Austin.”
McElroy, who remains a tenured UT Austin professor, didn’t return requests for comment Tuesday.
On Monday, Bermúdez announced he is resigning from the interim dean position, effective July 31.
“I feel in the light of controversy surrounding recent communications with Dr. Kathleen McElroy that this is the best thing that I can do to preserve the great things that we have achieved over the last year in creating the College of Arts and Sciences at Texas A&M,” he said in an email to students, staff and faculty members, provided to Inside Higher Ed by the university. The university opened that college in fall 2022.
“My continuation in this role would be a needless distraction as you all continue the work that we have begun,” Bermúdez wrote.
Bermúdez, a philosophy professor and the Samuel Rhea Gammon Professor of Liberal Arts, said in an email that he had “nothing to add to the statements I have made and message to faculty and staff.”
A week ago, a university spokeswoman released a statement from Bermúdez saying, “Dr. McElroy has an offer in hand … we have not been notified her plans have changed—we hope that’s not the case. We certainly regret any misunderstanding that may have taken place.”
Then the university released one saying,
“There are limits on what we can discuss given the threat of litigation. A number of things have been reported that are either inaccurate or misleading. Texas A&M initially offered a tenured full professor position subject to approval through our established process. It was determined through a mutual agreement that a professor of practice position was more appropriate given her experience within the journalism industry. Dr. McElroy officially applied for the professor of practice role. She was issued a standard one-year draft offer letter to be a professor of practice. She also received a three-year administrative offer letter. She was told we were open to further negotiation and discussion. We discovered Dr. McElroy’s intent to stay at the University of Texas through media inquiries. At that time, we made another attempt to reach out to her, which was unsuccessful.”
McElroy’s situation has echoes of the past tenure controversy at the University of North Carolina over journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones, co-creator of The New York Times Magazine’s “1619 Project.” In July 2021, Hannah-Jones, a Black, female, Pulitzer Prize–winning writer, chose Howard University, over the Chapel Hill Board of Trustees’ delayed tenure offer, which only came after protests on her behalf.
Jelani Cobb, dean of the Columbia University Journalism School, said Tuesday that “I and other people in journalism education are deeply concerned about the implications of this for academic freedom. You know, this is the second time that we’ve seen a situation like this, specifically at a journalism program.”
He said if there’s any place where First Amendment press freedoms or academic freedoms should be “sacrosanct,” it should be at journalism schools.
Tracy Hammond, the Texas A&M Faculty Senate speaker, said the Senate has invited university administrators to explain the situation today, ahead of a possible vote on a resolution calling on the A&M system to “resist outside influences and stand up for the faculty against inappropriate outside pressures, or the perception thereof.”
“I only know what you have read in the paper, so I don’t know exactly what happened in this case,” Hammond said. “What I do know is that the department was resoundingly excited about her coming to lead the new program, and for her to come with a full tenured position … If the department is very excited, usually that ends up what happens.”
“No matter what, the perception is very important,” she said, “and we need to make sure that whenever we hire anyone, we’re not making a decision based on anything other than their academic merit, of which her academic merit is impeccable.”
Hammond had written to A&M’s president, M. Katherine Banks, on Friday, and Banks replied over the weekend, according to a letter Hammond provided Inside Higher Ed.
“Like you, I am disappointed and concerned about the negative media coverage and wish that the employment negotiations had continued along the traditional path,” Banks wrote. “I, along with my leadership team, sincerely regret any miscommunication that contributed to this result, particularly in the area of DEI legislation. We are currently assessing our communication pathways during hiring processes to ensure this situation will not be repeated.”
It’s unclear how DEI legislation relates to this situation, but, last month, Texas governor Greg Abbott signed into law Senate Bill 17.
At public colleges and universities, the law bans “conducting trainings, programs or activities designed or implemented in reference to race, color, ethnicity, gender identity or sexual orientation, other than trainings, programs or activities developed by an attorney and approved in writing by the institution’s general counsel and the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board for the sole purpose of ensuring compliance with any applicable court order or state or federal law.”
It also bans “influencing hiring or employment practices at the institution with respect to race, sex, color or ethnicity, other than through the use of color-blind and sex-neutral hiring processes in accordance with any applicable state and federal antidiscrimination laws.”
As The Texas Tribune also previously reported, Shannon Van Zandt referenced that law and the McElroy controversy when she announced Monday her resignation from the A&M School of Architecture’s executive associate dean position. She will remain a faculty member.
Saying the letter had already been shared by others beyond its intended recipients, Van Zandt provided her letter to Inside Higher Ed. It says, “When the news broke last week of the clear interference of politics in the hiring and tenure processes of the head of the new Department of Journalism, my confidence in the integrity of these processes and my ability to ensure it was lost. I no longer feel that I can assure faculty going through the tenure and promotion process that the process will be done fairly and without interference from political forces.”
The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, an organization that advocates for free speech on college campuses and elsewhere, has opposed requiring faculty members to sign diversity, equity and inclusion statements. But it sent Banks a letter Tuesday raising concern about the McElroy situation.
“Revoking McElroy’s original employment offer in response to powerful political forces, big donors or alumni groups that object to her views effectuates unconstitutional viewpoint discrimination in violation of [the university]’s binding First Amendment obligations,” the group wrote. “The principle of viewpoint neutrality applies with particular strength to universities, which by their nature must be dedicated to ‘free speech and creative inquiry,’ as ‘one of the vital centers for the nation’s intellectual life.’ We urge [the university] to urgently and transparently address its decision-making during McElroy’s hiring process, and to reaffirm its commitment to viewpoint diversity.”
FIRE requested “a substantive response” by July 24.