SAR’s Academic Freedom Monitoring Project investigates and reports attacks on higher education with the aim of raising awareness, generating advocacy, and increasing protection for scholars, students, and academic communities. Learn more.

Date of Incident: July 11, 2023

Attack Types: Other

Institution(s):Texas A&M University

Region & Country:Americas | United States of America

New or Ongoing:New Incident

On July 11, 2023, it was reported that Texas A&M University (TAMU) had responded to political pressure by altering the terms of a job offered to Kathleen O. McElroy, a prominent journalist and tenured faculty member at the University of Texas – Austin. McElroy rejected the revised job offer.

During the Spring 2023 semester, TAMU recruited McElroy for its journalism program, resulting in a strong recommendation for her candidacy by the search committee in April. On May 11, José Luis Bermúdez, the then-interim dean of TAMU’s College of Arts and Sciences prepared a budget request for a re-established and expanded journalism program, including McElroy as its director. TAMU offered McElroy a position as a tenured faculty member and the journalism program’s director. On June 13, the university held a public signing ceremony to share the news of McElroy’s hire.

On June 15, two days after the ceremony, the Texas Scorecard, a conservative website, published an article written by a TAMU student that described McElroy as a supporter of DEI initiatives. During that same day, Texas governor Greg Abbott signed a new law banning diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) offices at public universities in the state. The following day, on June 16, Jay Graham, a member of the Board of Regents, sent a text message to TAMU president M. Kathleen Banks and TAMU chancellor John Sharp saying that he hoped that the news of McElroy’s hire was not true. The Sul Ross Group and Rudder Association, two alumni groups with many conservative members, also expressed their disapproval of McElroy’s hire to the TAMU administration. Among the concerns that they pointed to was McElroy’s work with the New York Times and her writing covering race and diversity.

Following this pressure, TAMU revised its job offer to McElroy first to a five-year contract without tenure, and later to a one-year contract without tenure and a separate three-year administrative contract as director of the journalism program. On July 7, Bermúdez called McElroy to tell her that he would not be able to protect her from those who wanted to fire her. He reportedly also urged McElroy to stay in her current position at the University of Texas. McElroy chose to reject the job offer from TAMU.

By the end of July, Bermúdez and Banks had both resigned from their positions. TAMU’s general council also conducted an investigation into the failed hiring process, concluding that TAMU regents appointed by the state’s governor’s office had weighed in on the hiring process—something unusual for the hire of a faculty member.

In August 2023, TAMU agreed to a settlement to pay McElroy $1 million in acknowledgement of the “mistakes” made during the hiring process. University officials wrote in an official statement that “The leadership of Texas A&M apologizes to Dr. McElroy for the way her employment application was handled, has learned from its mistakes and will strive to ensure similar mistakes are not repeated in the future.”

Scholars at Risk is concerned about the scaling back of a job offer to a qualified candidate apparently resulting from outside pressure by external actors. To function properly and safeguard academic freedom, universities must retain institutional autonomy, which UNESCO defines as “that degree of self-governance necessary for effective decision making by institutions of higher education regarding their academic work, standards, management and related activities consistent with systems of public accountability, especially in respect of funding provided by the state, and respect for academic freedom and human rights.” External actors, including government officials and political actors have a right to free expression, but should not be permitted to impose undue pressure on universities’ academic decisions, including those relating to the hiring and firing of academic personnel, or curricula. Universities should take measures to ensure, wherever possible, that such decisions remain free from outside pressure and are driven solely by academic considerations.

Sources:
https://www.texastribune.org/2023/07/11/texas-a-m-kathleen-mcelroy-journalism
https://www.texastribune.org/2023/07/17/tamu-dean-resigns-kathleen-mcelroy/
https://www.texastribune.org/2023/07/19/texas-tamu-kathleen-mcelroy-kathy-banks
https://www.kbtx.com/2023/07/12/celebrated-new-leader-am-journalism-rescinds-acceptance-over-hostile-environment/
https://www.chronicle.com/article/after-a-botched-hiring-at-texas-a-m-a-prominent-journalist-has-chosen-to-stay-where-she-is
https://www.chronicle.com/article/who-had-a-say-in-derailing-texas-a-ms-hiring-of-kathleen-mcelroy
https://www.chronicle.com/article/texas-a-ms-president-resigns-in-fallout-from-failed-hiring
https://www.chronicle.com/article/texas-a-m-tries-to-turn-the-page-from-its-summer-of-scandal
https://www.chron.com/news/houston-texas/education/article/texas-a-m-dr-kathleen-mcelroy-18277541.php
https://www.washingtonpost.com/education/2023/07/14/texas-am-kathleen-mcelroy-hire-controversy/