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For Black Aggies, questions over professor’s botched hiring persist after president’s departure

By Alejandro Serrano and William Melhado, The Texas Tribune

For Black Aggies, questions over professor’s botched hiring persist after president’s departure” 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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For Texas A&M University’s Black students and alumni, Friday’s sudden resignation of university President M. Katherine Banks after the botched hiring of a distinguished Black professor was an imperfect response that failed to answer a crucial question: Was the whole debacle caused by university administrators’ anxieties over diversity?

Banks left her post amid a whirlwind of backlash for how the university handled the recruiting of University of Texas at Austin professor Kathleen McElroy to revive Texas A&M’s journalism program.

McElroy, a 1981 Texas A&M graduate and the former director of the UT School of Journalism in Austin, rejected the A&M job after the offer was watered down twice, bringing it from a tenured position to a one-year job from which she could be fired at any point. The changes came after conservative groups took issue with her previous employment at The New York Times and her work in diversifying newsrooms.

“It’s a disservice when we make what was supposed to be something good a bad thing,” said Matthew Francis Jr., a fifth-year Texas A&M student who is pursuing a master’s degree in public service and administration. “Now Black students are left without representation of someone who has the experience of a faculty member that cares about what she does and someone who genuinely loves her field.”

A&M students also emphasized concerns about new state laws aimed at curbing the types of efforts McElroy had leveraged to improve newsroom diversity during her decadeslong career.

In a Friday message to The Texas Tribune, McElroy said, “I’m deeply grateful for the groundswell of support I’ve received, especially from Aggies of all majors, and my former and current students. There’s much more I could say and will say about what has unfolded. But for now, I’ll reserve those statements for a future date.”

Banks’ resignation, the third this week related to the scandal, does not amount to accountability, students, alumni and lawmakers said Friday. Instead, it added more questions to a situation already rife with them.

Hours after Banks resigned, Hart Blanton, who leads A&M’s department of communications and journalism and was closely involved in McElroy’s recruiting, said race was a factor in university officials’ decision to water down her job offer.

“The unusual level of scrutiny being given to the hiring of Dr. McElroy was acknowledged by one administrator to have been based, at least in part, on race,” he said in a statement. “Regardless of the source of any such pressure, I understand it to be illegal for any employer—much less a public university—to subject a job candidate to stricter scrutiny due to her race or color.”

Blanton also said Banks had misled faculty when she told them the decision to change McElroy’s job offer was made without her involvement.

“To the contrary, President Banks injected herself into the process atypically and early on,” Blanton said.

Laylan Copelin, vice chancellor for marketing and communication for the Texas A&M University System, said in a statement Friday that system officials had “read, heard and understood the concerns of our Aggie community” regarding McElroy’s failed hiring, which was being investigated by their legal team.

For Erica Davis Rouse, the president-elect of the A&M Black Former Students Network, it’s unclear what Banks’ departure was supposed to correct.

“If she’s resigning because she’s accepting the responsibility for what happened under her leadership, that’s probably the right thing to do,” she said. “But if she’s resigning because she accepted responsibility and now she’s being forced to resign, that’s not OK.”

Davis Rouse said the university’s actions further sow distrust between A&M and Black Aggies that has been simmering close to the surface in recent years.

She pointed to the debate over the statue of Lawrence Sullivan Ross, a former university president who was a Confederate general. The university declined to take down the statue after students demanded its removal based on its ties to historical violence. Davis Rouse said the chapter reflects a broader conflict between what some view as “traditional” Aggie values and university stances that don’t make students of color feel safe on campus, where only 3% of students are Black.

“In spite of everything that has happened over the years, I’ve been here, I still love my school,” Francis told the Tribune. “But I need people to understand that you can love something and want better for it at the same time.”

Davis Rouse said it can be frustrating trying to effect change, noting that the relationship Black students and alumni have with A&M is complicated. As the leader of an alumni organization, she’s acutely aware of which groups have — and don’t have — influence in the university system. A big part of that is money, she said.

“When the first Black students were able to go to A&M, there were already generations of white students that were far ahead of us, and those people were already giving before we were even able to be admitted to the university,” Davis Rouse said. “We just don’t have the voice from a financial perspective.”

McElroy’s failed hiring also raised concerns about a potential connection with Republicans’ recent attacks on diversity, equity and inclusion efforts. Public universities’ DEI offices will soon become a thing of the past when a new state law banning them goes into effect in September.

Gary Bledsoe, president of the Texas NAACP, said in a statement that priorities in higher education have shifted.

“Education of students is no longer a primary consideration,” he said. “That lofty goal has been replaced by a political, anti-Black, anti-Brown and anti-education agenda.”

State Rep. Ron Reynolds, a Democrat who represents Missouri City and chairs the Legislative Black Caucus, said he and two other members of the caucus met with Banks on Tuesday to discuss their frustrations about McElroy’s failed hiring.

“We thought we had a very productive meeting. We cleared the air. She didn’t try to make excuses,” Reynolds said. “We were fairly optimistic that we were going to have a follow-up with President Banks to discuss ways to move forward.”

Reynolds said her resignation was “somewhat of a surprise” and left things feeling unresolved.

“It’s a disappointment, I guess, that she’s being used as a scapegoat. I think there should be some accountability,” he said, adding that anyone who was involved in the process deserves scrutiny. “One of the things that the Legislative Black Caucus was seeking was accountability and more answers as to ‘Why did this happen the way it happened?’”

Disclosure: Texas A&M University, New York Times, Texas A&M University System 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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