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Texas A&M president says she didn’t know about job offer changes that led to professor’s botched hiring

By William Melhado, The Texas Tribune

Texas A&M president says she didn’t know about job offer changes that led to professor’s botched hiring” 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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Texas A&M President Kathy Banks told faculty on Wednesday she did not approve changes to an offer letter that led a prospective journalism professor to walk away from negotiations amid conservative backlash to her hiring.

“I am embarrassed that we are in a situation where we have an offer that was released without the proper approvals. I was surprised by that,” Banks said during a meeting of the university’s Faculty Senate. “However, it’s important to note that we honored that letter, we honored all of the letters, because it was of no fault to the candidate, who was very, very qualified, that our administrative structure broke down.”

Banks said the original offer made to Kathleen O. McElroy, a renowned journalist who was tapped to revive A&M’s journalism program, is still on the table. But when asked if the university’s administration had reached out to McElroy to again extend the offer, Banks said that the system’s Office of General Counsel recommended not doing so given the threat of legal action.

Vice President of Faculty Affairs N.K. Anand also said his office did not review the subsequent, watered-down offer letters sent to McElroy. Neither Banks nor Anand clarified where the diminished offer letters originated from or who approved them, but Anand said those decisions were made by the university’s department of Communication and Journalism within the College of Arts and Sciences.

McElroy could not be reached for comment Wednesday evening.

While Banks took responsibility for the botched hiring process, professors were left unsatisfied with the administration’s answers to questions about what exactly transpired over the weeks that led to McElroy walking away from the deal.

“We are a bunch of Ph.D.s right? And I don’t think that all of us can diagram what happened,” said Raymundo Arroyave, a materials science and engineering professor after the faculty’s hourslong meeting with Banks and Anand.

After talking to them, the Faculty Senate approved a resolution calling for the creation of a fact-finding committee to investigate the mishandling of McElroy’s hiring.

“We don’t know anything,” said María Moyna, a professor in the department of global languages. “Somebody or somebodies are at fault, and if people who were at fault aren’t punished, then things will continue to go like this.”

McElroy, a renowned journalism professor currently working at the University of Texas at Austin, turned down an offer to reboot A&M’s journalism program after a fraught negotiation process first reported by The Texas Tribune. What originally was a tenure-track offer was reduced to a five-year position, then to a one-year position from which she could be fired at any time.

In the weeks after Texas A&M celebrated hiring McElroy, vocal groups from outside the university system expressed issues with her previous employment at The New York Times and her support for diversity in newsrooms. McElroy has said she was told that not everyone was pleased by her joining the faculty.

Just before she received the final offer letter, McElroy said she got a call from A&M’s interim dean for the College of Arts and Sciences, José Luis Bermúdez, warning her that there were people who could force leadership to fire her and he could not protect her. After the fiasco became public, Bermúdez announced he would step down from his role.

One group that voiced concern to the administration about McElroy’s selection was The Rudder Association, a conservative alumni group that has previously attempted to exert influence over A&M system officials.

In a statement issued Friday, the alumni group was critical of McElroy but rejected that its advocacy contributed to the university officials’ decision to scale back her job offer.

“TRA believes that a department head should embrace the egalitarian and merit-based traditions that characterize Texas A&M’s values rather than the divisive ideology of identity politics,” the alumni group said, referring to McElroy’s previous work to improve diversity in newsrooms.

During Wednesday’s meeting, Anand said no outside groups contacted him or his office regarding McElroy’s hiring. Banks said she met members of The Rudder Association at the beginning of her time as president roughly two years ago, but she has not met with the group since then.

Faculty said the perception of outside influence had significantly damaged the reputation of the university.

“[Recent] events have called into question the state of academic freedom at our university and created a national perception that outside influence has interfered in the appointment of Dr. Kathleen McElroy as a full professor with tenure at the university,” read the resolution the Faculty Senate adopted Wednesday.

The botched hiring comes as universities are facing scrutiny and resistance over their diversity, equity and inclusion efforts. Some conservatives have recently labeled programs and schools of thought that center the perspectives of people of color as “woke” ideologies that make white students feel guilty for the country’s history of racism.

Legislation to purge state universities’ DEI programs was signed into law last month and goes into effect in January. The A&M System recently began a systemwide audit of all DEI offices in response to the new law.

Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, said the attacks on DEI offices in universities reflects a nationwide trend by white supremacists and far-right conservatives to do away with any program that has to do with race or ethnic considerations.

“I think that [McElroy’s] botched hiring … is a direct result of the hysteria concerning DEI, when the fact of the matter is she wasn’t being hired as a DEI official or an employee,” West told the Tribune. “She’s being hired to work with the journalism department.”

On Wednesday, administrators acknowledged that the flawed process would require changes. Anand said his signature will now be required — in addition to a dean’s and a department head’s — on all offer letters.

“I know that we will have to take steps and think very carefully about how we restore the confidence of individuals in Texas A&M and this administration,” Banks said.

A&M faculty’s criticisms of Banks and her handling of the botched hiring strained an already fraught relationship with her.

Last year, faculty leaders said Banks was leaving professors out of major university decisions. The Faculty Senate adopted a resolution that said “shared governance is no longer functioning as envisioned by faculty at Texas A&M University.” The faculty group hoped to reset the relationship with administrators so that their decisions were more inclusive of faculty.

Research leaders at the university also raised concerns in April about Banks’ decision-making since she took the helm over two years ago.

Disclosure: Texas A&M University, New York Times and University of Texas at Austin 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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