By Kate McGee, The Texas Tribune
“Texas A&M leaders’ text messages show desire to counteract perceived liberal agenda in higher education” 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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Two years ago during M. Katherine Banks’ first six months as the president of Texas A&M University, she announced a major academic reorganization of the flagship campus to help it become an internationally recognized top-tier institution. Her plans included dozens of structural changes meant to streamline and better organize the largest public university in the state.
But text messages released by the Texas A&M University System this week revealed another largely unspoken focus among system leaders that might have also been at play as the school reorganized.
“Kathy [Banks] told us multiple times the reason we were going to combine [the colleges of] arts and sciences together was to control the liberal nature that those professors brought to campus,” regent Jay Graham wrote to regent David Baggett in June as they were discussing the university’s plans to hire journalism professor and former New York Times editor Kathleen O. McElroy. “[W]e were going to start a journalism department to get high-quality conservative Aggie students into the journalism world to help direct our message. This won’t happen with this type of hire!”
Those messages were released as part of an internal investigation conducted to review the failed attempt to hire McElroy, which has rattled the Aggie community in recent weeks amid concerns over how political considerations impact A&M’s operations and academic freedom.
The messages show that many board members, who are gubernatorial appointees, had concerns with McElroy’s perceived left-leaning credentials, including that she taught at the University of Texas at Austin and previously worked at the New York Times. At least some of them displayed a desire to promote conservative causes at the flagship campus and a blatant resistance to recruiting someone who they believed would work counter to those goals.
“While it is wonderful for a successful Aggie to want to come back to Texas A&M to be a tenured professor and build something this important from scratch, we must look at her résumé and her statements made an opinion pieces and public interviews,” regent Mike Hernandez wrote to former president Banks and Chancellor John Sharp, expressing disappointment that the board learned of the hire after it had been announced.
“The New York Times is one of the leading main stream media sources in our country. It is common knowledge that they are biased and progressive leaning. The same exact thing can be said about the university of Texas,” he continued.
Those perspectives are consistent with Texas conservatives’ recent attempts to counteract what they view as a liberal agenda within Texas’ public universities.
“People on the right think that the left controls education and they’ve been trying to wrestle that control away,” said Jennifer Mercieca, a communications professor at Texas A&M who focuses on the intersection of democracy and communication. “Unfortunately, our journalism program got caught in the middle of that.”
In Texas, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick has largely led that crusade within the state’s public universities. A few years ago, he was part of initial discussions with UT-Austin leaders and donors to create a conservative-leaning think tank that would bring “intellectual diversity” to the school. This year, he championed legislation that eliminates diversity, equity and inclusion offices on college campuses, offices that are largely viewed by conservatives as pushing left-leaning ideologies onto students. Patrick also tried to eliminate tenure for faculty, a longstanding tenet meant to bolster academic freedom on campuses.
“People have had it with the intolerance of any ideas but progressive, DEI, propaganda-ish kinds of ideas on campus,” said Sherry Sylvester, a former aide for Patrick who now works as a public policy fellow at the conservative-leaning Texas Public Policy Foundation and was an ardent supporter of the legislation to eliminate DEI programs this past session. “That is a big effort, a big movement.”
The impact of that movement was on display in the records Texas A&M released this week surrounding the failed effort to recruit McElroy.
Soon after making an initial offer to McElroy, Banks communicated that she wanted to push the announcement until after the most recent legislative session ended. At the time, university leaders, including those at Texas A&M, were negotiating with lawmakers over the DEI legislation, as well as state funding for public universities.
“Bottom line is that the NYT connection is poor optics during this particular legislative session,” Jose Bermúdez, interim dean of the college of arts and science, said to Hart Blanton, chair of the communications and journalism department, via text message on May 11.
Meanwhile, regents expressed disdain for media and academics they saw as liberal leaning. While regents approve tenure, it is typically unusual for them to get involved in university-level hires. The Texas A&M regents oversee 11 public universities and eight state agencies that employ more than 26,000 faculty across the state.
Higher education experts say that education has long been characterized as political. Recent efforts in places like Texas, North Carolina and Florida have picked up partially due to how well the Republican base responds to the accusations.
“The notion of woke ideology, and how it supposedly has done all this damage to things has just risen as a political talking point,” said Holden Thorp, former chancellor of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a current professor at George Washington University. “It’s easy to say the universities are the places that you want to attack this,” citing that the argument has increasingly shown to poll well among conservatives.
According to the internal report A&M released Thursday, Banks received calls from six to seven regents after Texas Scorecard, a conservative website, wrote an article about McElroy that painted her as a “DEI proponent” for her prior research to improve diversity in newsrooms. Board member Sam Torn emailed a quote from the article to Board Chair Bill Mahomes stating he wanted an explanation before he could approve McElroy’s tenure.
The internal report revealed that Banks was heavily involved in behind-the-scenes discussions to walk back the original offer given to McElroy, contradicting Banks’ previous public statements that she had no knowledge of changes to the offer. Banks resigned two weeks before her text messages were made public.
The internal report showed that regents also raised questions about whether they could approve tenure for McElroy, even though she already had been selected through the university’s standard hiring process.
“Granting tenure to somebody with this background is going to be a difficult sell for many on the [board of regents],” Hernandez said in an email to Banks and Sharp. “My sincere hope is that you both will figure out a way to completely put the brakes on this, so we all can discuss this further. If it’s truly too far down the road for you all to agree to that, the board majority can decide how to proceed and take the heat for the final call.”
Thorp said the regents’ meddling in the university’s hiring process overstepped their role.
“When they approve tenure, what they’re doing is saying that they have confidence in the administration to carry out the process that they said,” Thorp said. “The role of the board is to rule against it, if for some reason they think the process wasn’t followed. Well, in this case, the process wasn’t followed, not because of the content or anything, but because [Banks] didn’t put the case forward because of politics.”
Some of the regents also took issue with what they perceived as McElroy’s bias toward conservative viewpoints.
“We can’t just give people a set of facts anymore,” McElroy said in an interview on the public radio program “Here & Now” in 2021. “I think we know that and we have to tell our students that. This is not about getting two sides of a story or three sides of a story, if one side is illegitimate. I think now you cannot cover education, you cannot cover criminal justice, you can’t cover all of these institutions without recognizing how all these institutions were built.”
Sylvester with TPPF pointed to that quote as the reason she was against McElroy’s hiring for the journalism program. She declined to comment on the regents’ text messages but said her organization wants to see more free inquiry within higher education.
“No one is looking for a conservative ideology to drive higher ed,” she said. “But taxpayers and conservative leaders no longer want to underride a left wing divisive ideology that permeates so much of the curriculum.”
Thorp said as the politicization of higher education increases and decisions are made based on politics over policy and procedure, it makes universities “ungovernable.”
“I’m certainly not defending Kathy Banks and her dishonest actions in this, but part of the reason why she resorted to that, probably, is that she didn’t have many other choices,” said Thorp, referring to her role in watering down McElroy’s job offer. “Every time you have to do something you’re facing this intractable situation where you’re either going to get the campus against you or get the board against you. And that’s how not functional organizations work.”
Mercieca at Texas A&M said the internal report revealed how McElroy’s hiring was a victim of intervention that creates distrust within what are supposed to be democratic processes within universities.
“What we learned yesterday is that all of those institutional processes and procedures can be overruled by fiat, by powerful others,” she said. “It’s not democratic.”
Disclosure: Texas A&M University, Texas Public Policy Foundation, 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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This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2023/08/04/texas-am-mcelroy-texts/.
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