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Research leaders at Texas A&M University raise “serious concerns” with President Kathy Banks’ leadership

By Kate McGee, The Texas Tribune

Research leaders at Texas A&M University raise “serious concerns” with President Kathy Banks’ leadership” was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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Eight months after Texas A&M University professors expressed frustration that President Kathy Banks was leaving them out of major decisions, a well-respected group on campus says researchers at the flagship university also have “serious concerns” with the president’s leadership, based on survey results from a poll the group conducted.

In a letter sent to Banks last week, the Council of Principal Investigators, an elected group of faculty and researchers who help oversee research activity at the school, said responses from “principal investigators” — faculty and researchers within the A&M system who are allowed to oversee research grants — revealed “widespread discontent.”

Overall, the poll found that these principal investigators do not trust the current administration, and many feel that administrators are cultivating an environment of fear and intimidation on campus. In the survey responses, research faculty lamented that the university has made too many interim appointments and “unqualified leadership appointments” rather than conducting national searches to fill open positions, which has led to “incompetent handling of issues.” They also felt the administration was “insincere” about their efforts to have faculty involved in long-term planning and decision making.

“We encourage University-leadership to consider this and prior feedback … as an opportunity to adjust leadership style to build an atmosphere of mutual trust,” the letter read.

The council decided to organize a poll in December after a well-respected chemist at Texas A&M, Karen Wooley, wrote a letter to Banks warning that many of the changes she had made since starting as president in 2021 were, “causing substantial disruptions and threatening the integrity of this prestigious and precious institution.” Last August, the Faculty Senate passed a resolution calling on Banks to increase communication and collaboration with faculty.

Banks declined an interview request with The Texas Tribune. In a statement, she said she addressed many of these concerns in a January memo outlining new coffee meetings with faculty and administrators and a monthly email update on university initiatives. Banks also formed two new committees that meet with her biweekly.

“I am dedicated to enhancing interaction with faculty and staff and have enacted several initiatives outlined in the memo to allow for greater accessibility, more frequent communication and opportunities for faculty and staff to provide feedback,” she said. “As I have stated in the past, I am committed to shared governance and will continue to place a strong focus on regularly assessing engagement with the greater campus community.”

Banks served as the dean of Texas A&M’s engineering school before Texas A&M University System Chancellor John Sharp tapped her to become president of the College Station-based university, which has 12 colleges and two branch campuses in Galveston and Qatar, in June 2021. Upon transitioning to the role, she immediately hired MGT Consulting to review A&M’s organizational structure and provide recommendations for change. In December of 2021, she announced 41 recommendations that she began to enact last September.

Changes include combining A&M’s College of Liberal Arts, College of Science and College of Geosciences into one College of Arts and Sciences. The university also launched a new School of Performance, Visualization and Fine Arts to house performance studies, dance and visualization programs under one roof. Faculty were especially critical of the restructuring of the university’s libraries, which resulted in librarians losing tenure status.

Banks also approved a restructuring of the branch of Texas A&M in Qatar that offers engineering undergraduate and graduate degrees. As of Sept 1., faculty who work in areas beyond engineering are no longer allowed to conduct research. Faculty who teach in areas that can grant degrees shifted from rolling contracts to fixed-term contracts for up to five years, and faculty who teach in non-degree-granting areas are on annual contracts, which critics argue will create more job insecurity. Finally, Banks consolidated school leadership under one dean.

Critics argue these changes will make it harder to recruit and retain talented faculty at the Middle East campus.

Wooley’s letter, sent to Banks on Dec. 14, spread like wildfire across campus and online. The following day, the council organized the poll, giving faculty until Jan. 2 to indicate if they supported Wooley’s letter and provide additional feedback.

The letter from council leadership said 89% of more than 237 faculty members supported Wooley’s concerns, while additional respondents submitted detailed comments online and “expressed additional misgivings.” Overall, the 237 respondents represent 14% of the estimated 2,000 principal investigators on campus.

In a statement Monday, Texas A&M spokesperson Kelly Brown said the survey was not “scientific.”

“[I]t was a single question and, based on the explanation given in their own summary, it’s unknown if any of the respondents voted multiple times, so it’s not even clear if the data is reliable,” Brown stated.

According to the letter, council leaders shared these results with Banks at a meeting on March 6.

“Dr. Banks was attentive to the themes conveyed by the [Council of Principal Investigators Executive Committee] members present at the meeting, and aptly countered with the fact that while criticisms have value, the provision of actionable recommendations that can address shortcomings could be of much greater value,” a timeline of events included with the letter reads.

The council leaders acknowledged that Banks and her administration have taken steps since December to improve communication and hold monthly meetings with the executive committee. They also included additional recommendations to increase engagement between those who oversee research grants, faculty and administration.

Other recommendations to improve trust and transparency between Banks and research faculty include enhanced communication and clearer avenues for people to provide feedback. The group also suggested that Banks appoint people in the office of faculty affairs to serve as faculty advocates and oversee potential solutions. And the group recommended Banks conduct external searches for all high-level administrative positions, which would allow internal candidates to apply along with outside candidates.

Disclosure: Texas A&M University and Texas A&M University System have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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