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Faculty worry about Texas A&M’s future after controversies over higher ed politicization

By Alejandro Serrano, The Texas Tribune

Faculty worry about Texas A&M’s future after controversies over higher ed politicization” 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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Rajesh Miranda had never heard of Texas A&M University and couldn’t place it on a map when he “kind of flew in blind” from New York for a job interview 28 years ago.

“I came away telling my wife that this is an amazing place. There’s a sense of vibrancy and when you ask a question, people say, ‘Yes, we can do it,’” said Miranda, a neuroscience and experimental therapeutics professor. “There was a sense of optimism. And I bought into that.”

So began three decades of working for the university and preaching — at research symposiums, to anyone, anywhere, during any opportunity — about an institution he saw as a Texas gem.

That pride has recently dimmed.

Miranda and other faculty members described a sense of disappointment, sadness and concern this week about the future of their university following the resignation of Texas A&M President M. Katherine Banks amid a surge of backlash over the failed hiring of a Black journalist to lead a revived journalism program, first reported by The Texas Tribune.

The turmoil grew when the Tribune published another report Tuesday detailing a second instance in which school officials made employment decisions in apparent response to political pressure. University officials suspended and investigated a professor who was accused of criticizing Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick in a lecture. She was cleared of wrongdoing.

Faculty expressed shock at the extent to which political pressures have interfered in a university whose values of integrity, respect and excellence appear to have been challenged. They’re uneasy over the scandals’ potential chilling effect on speech or the possible creation of a fearful environment in which professors agonize over the political ramifications of their work — leading some to consider looking for other jobs.

Most of all, they worry that the damage to the university’s reputation will slow efforts to recruit and retain academic talent, eclipse decades of work, and erode the love and devotion that students, instructors and alumni have poured into an institution they believe in.

“A&M is this great place and a wonderful place and I believe that is true. But when things like this happen,” Miranda said and paused. “It’s really hard to build. It’s easy to tear down.”

Miranda said he was speaking as an individual whose views did not represent those of the university.

The university’s efforts to hire Kathleen McElroy, an experienced journalist and professor, fell apart when the job offer was diluted from a tenure-track role to a one-year contract that could be terminated at any time. The dean involved in hiring her told her that her appointment had been caught up in “hysteria” over diversity initiatives in Texas. She told the Tribune the final offer “makes it clear they don’t want me there” and walked away from the negotiations.

In a tense Faculty Senate meeting after the publication of the Tribune’s story, Banks told the group that she did not know about the changes to McElroy’s job offer and that the subsequent, watered-down offers had not received proper approval.

Still, she and the dean resigned from their positions amid the fallout. Soon after Banks’ resignation, Hart Blanton, the head of the university’s department of communications and journalism, contradicted Banks’ assertion that she had not interfered in the hiring process, adding that race was a factor in university officials’ decision to dilute McElroy’s job offer.

“We were on top of the world. We had an international stage to announce what was going to be a premier journalism program — not just in the country but in the world — with one of the best-qualified candidates that could be imagined for this position,” said Nathan Crick, a professor in the department.

“The fall from that high to the absolute low of now being a department that was scapegoated by this administration and now represents the face of what is in effect a racist institution — at least in reputation — it is hard to imagine a greater distance to fall,” Crick continued. “We are feeling betrayed, demoralized, outraged.”

This week’s revelation that the university had suspended and investigated a professor who allegedly criticized Patrick during a lecture only added to the outrage.

The investigation into opioid expert Joy Alonzo, who has taught college students in Texas for more than a decade, was kicked off by Texas Land Commissioner Dawn Buckingham, a graduate of the University of Texas Medical Branch’s medical school who is a Patrick ally and an acquaintance of Texas A&M University System Chancellor John Sharp. Records show that Sharp informed Patrick that the university had reprimanded Alonzo hours after the alleged critique.

It is still not clear what exactly Alonzo said, though people who attended Alonzo’s lecture told the Tribune that she suggested Patrick’s office had opposed opioid policies that could save lives. Texas A&M eventually allowed Alonzo to keep her job; an internal investigation could not confirm any wrongdoing.

The Alonzo investigation was quickly blasted by freedom of expression organizations. PEN America called it “blatantly inappropriate” and “a frightening example of how precarious academic freedom is becoming on Texas campuses.” The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression called on the university to publicly renounce the investigation and recommit to protecting faculty’s freedom to express themselves.

“Texas A&M’s punishment of Alonzo to please powerful political forces is a stunning abdication of its constitutional obligations, deeply chilling faculty and student expression on campus,” FIRE said in a letter to the university Tuesday. “Any adverse action taken in response to protected expression — including investigations by state actors with disciplinary authority — can violate the First Amendment.”

In a statement last week responding to the McElroy scandal, Sharp told faculty that he shared their concerns about outside influence on hiring and promotion. The university’s Faculty Senate requested a meeting with Sharp after the Tribune reported on the Alonzo case.

“We find another case in which there is no longer the appearance, but actual evidence, of interference by outside political forces to erode the academic freedom of Texas A&M faculty to dialog with students on socially relevant topics in their area of expertise,” senate Speaker Tracy Hammond wrote in a letter to Sharp before the meeting. “This is not only having a chilling effect on our faculty but is further damaging the national reputation of our university. And it will make it even more difficult to recruit and retain the best and brightest talent.”

Sharp met privately with some Faculty Senate members Wednesday night.

Meanwhile, worries shared by two distinguished professors on a faculty listserv late last week show university staff remains on edge and tensions are high between faculty and administrators.

“Now the awful administration is gone, but fixing the huge damage done in the last two years to the work and reputation of the university looks like a Herculean task,” wrote Peter Kuchment, a mathematics professor. “I hope we can do this.”

Another faculty member, chemistry professor Karen Wooley, called for the resignation of N.K. Anand, vice president of faculty affairs, who said last week that his office had not reviewed the watered-down job offer letters sent to McElroy. Wooley previously confronted then-university president Banks and warned her in a letter last year that some of her decisions were causing “substantial disruptions and threatening the integrity of this prestigious and precious institution.” The letter led to a poll among university researchers that found many of them did not trust Banks’ administration.

Anand responded over the weekend, according to communications reviewed by the Tribune, that he would resign if he was found culpable of any wrongdoing involving McElroy’s hiring or otherwise.

But, he wrote, “if I am proven innocent, I demand that both Drs. Wooley and Kuchment resign as Texas A&M Faculty members effective immediately.”

Anand, who is from India, then suggested that he had been slandered and said he hoped there was no “racial animus” in the attacks against him. The high-ranking administrator signed off with an all-caps quote from Leo Tolstoy: “GOD SEES THE TRUTH BUT WAITS.”

Kuchment said in an email to the Tribune he had not named Anand in his note last week and had apologized for Anand’s apparent misunderstanding. In a followup email Monday, Wooley told Anand that she had not accused him of wrongdoing or questioned his character, adding that the offenses she referred to in the listserv were related to his professional performance.

“I have absolutely no information about what transpired or who was involved in the debacle surrounding Dr. McElroy’s hiring, and I would not accuse you or anyone of involvement,” Wooley wrote. “My primary interest is in identifying a pathway for our great institution to undergo rebuilding — please take an outside look and consider whether you remaining in the position as [vice president of faculty affairs] will help or hinder our ability to retain and recruit faculty, and to repair our reputation.”

It was apparently too late for Anand, who responded, “I do not accept your explanation of your post. Damage has been done.”

Anand referred a request for comment for this story to the university’s spokespeople.

Now faculty await the results of internal investigations into the McElroy case.

“To be completely fair we need to have the whole story: Why and how did this happen?” said John N. Stallone, past speaker of the Faculty Senate who’s been on the A&M faculty for 25 years in the department of physiology and pharmacology. “The fact that we can’t get the same story from two different people tells us the truth hasn’t been spoken yet.”

University leaders’ lack of transparency about how the scandals unfolded — and the persistent national attention — has deflated morale, according to professors who spoke candidly under the condition that their names not be published in any reports due to the sensitive nature of the situation.

One, a professor for almost a decade, said he has colleagues who have begun looking for other jobs. He was troubled by how much attention university leaders have paid to external political voices who are not authorities in the academic fields they are critiquing. Another professor said the university’s sense of purpose has dwindled as administrators’ energy has been focused on responding to the crisis.

Acting President Mark A. Welsh III tried to alleviate some of the concerns in a message released Wednesday.

“Texas A&M has weathered many storms over its 147-year history, and we’ll weather this one,” Welsh wrote. “The quickest way to get past it is to walk side-by-side and recommit to showing the world what it means to be an Aggie. I’m looking forward to the journey.”

Miranda, the neuroscientist, said he still sees the energy of can-do-ism that first drew him to the school in his colleagues and students. That has kept him at A&M — when he’s received offers to leave, he just needed to look around him to decide he’d stay.

“If we can solve our problems and move on, A&M yet has the potential to be a really great institution, one that I believe in,” he said.

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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