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The interim dean of Texas A&M’s College of Arts and Sciences announced on Monday he will step down from his role following the botched hiring of renowned journalism professor Kathleen O. McElroy amid conservative backlash.
“I feel in the light of controversy surrounding recent communications with Dr. Kathleen McElroy that this is the best thing that I can do to preserve the great things that we have achieved over the last year in creating the College of Arts and Sciences at Texas A&M,” José Luis Bermúdez said in the statement released Monday evening. “My continuation in this role would be a needless distraction as you all continue the work that we have begun.”
Bermúdez said he will leave his role at the end of the month. He did not know who his successor would be. Bermúdez told The Texas Tribune he had no further comment about his decision to step down, but said he would remain as a professor at the university's philosophy department.
Last month, A&M celebrated hiring McElroy — who worked at The New York Times for two decades and formerly directed the University of Texas at Austin’s School of Journalism — to revive the university’s journalism program. But the deal fell apart in the weeks that followed after a vocal group of constituents in the Texas A&M system expressed concern over her experience at the Times and with her work on race and diversity in newsrooms, McElroy told the Tribune last week.
During the failed negotiation process, McElroy said that Bermúdez told her he could not protect her from university leaders facing pressure to fire her over “DEI hysteria” surrounding her appointment. Bermúdez advised McElroy to stay in her tenured role at UT-Austin.
McElroy, a 1981 Texas A&M graduate, was the director of the University of Texas at Austin’s School of Journalism between 2018 and 2022. She walked away from Texas A&M’s job offer after the university watered down the agreement.
Bermúdez’s resignation marks the latest chapter in a tale that began unfolding last week.
The first version of the job offer McElroy received, which she signed at a ceremony in June, showed the university offered to hire her as a tenured professor in the Department of Communication and Journalism and as the revived journalism program’s director.
Following the backlash, McElroy agreed to a second offer that amounted to a five-year contract position without tenure.
The third offer, which McElroy rejected last week, offered a one-year contract and emphasized that she could be terminated at any time.
“I feel damaged by this entire process,” said McElroy, who is a Black woman and a native of Houston’s Third Ward, and whose father, George A. McElroy, was a pioneering Black journalist. “I’m being judged by race, maybe gender. And I don’t think other folks would face the same bars or challenges. And it seems that my being an Aggie, wanting to lead an Aggie program to what I thought would be prosperity, wasn’t enough.”
Days after the Tribune reported on the saga, faculty leaders condemned the university’s administration for its role in failed contract negotiations with McElroy.
Tracy Hammond, speaker for the Texas A&M Faculty Senate, wrote in a letter addressed to both university president M. Katherine Banks and Texas A&M system chancellor John Sharp that the group’s executive committee “decries the appearance of outside influence in the hiring and promotion of faculty.”
“We believe we share the common goal of preserving Texas A&M University as a premier institution with an outstanding reputation,” Hammond wrote. “But for that to happen, there must be an acknowledgement that outside influence is detrimental to that goal and efforts must be taken to preclude that from recurring.”
On Sunday, Banks responded to Hammond’s letter, agreeing that outside influence can be problematic when hiring new faculty.
“I am disappointed and concerned about the negative media coverage and wish that the employment negotiations had continued along the traditional path. I, along with my leadership team, sincerely regret any miscommunication that contributed to this result, particularly in the area of DEI legislation,” Banks’ letter said.
The fallout has extended to other departments within the university.
Shannon Van Zandt, an executive associate dean in A&M’s School of Architecture, will leave her administrative post at the end of her current contract due to those concerns, according to a letter Van Zandt sent Monday to architecture school faculty and staff. Her contract expires at the end of August, according to the letter. She will continue working at the university as a faculty member.
Van Zandt wrote that her confidence in the university’s commitment to uphold practices that advance diversity, equity and inclusion wavered with the installation of Banks as president, but she believed that “faculty and administrators had the autonomy to pursue these ideals in their respective positions.”
However, she began to question that a few weeks ago as plans emerged for university leadership to implement a new state law banning DEI offices in public universities.
“When the news broke last week of the clear interference of politics in the hiring and tenure processes of the Head of the new Department of Journalism, my confidence in the integrity of these processes and my ability to ensure it was lost,” Van Zandt wrote. “I no longer feel that I can assure faculty going through the tenure and promotion process that the process will be done fairly and without interference from political forces. I can no longer confidently communicate to faculty candidates our commitment to diversity, inclusion, and equity, nor the integrity of our hiring, tenure, promotion and retention efforts.”
Meanwhile, the state’s Legislative Black Caucus and NAACP chapter on Monday said the “targeted attack” on McElroy showed “how outspoken anti-DEI sentiments can discriminatorily infringe professional hiring procedures under the guise of meritocracy.”
“We said this during the legislative session, these radical anti-DEI campaigns will detrimentally obstruct the future of higher education in Texas and taint the reputations of our competitive top-tier institutions,” caucus Chair Rep. Ron Reynolds, D-Missouri City, said in a statement.
On Tuesday, the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression sent the university a letter saying the university might've engaged in viewpoint discrimination. The organization urged school officials to "transparently address its decision-making" regarding McElroy’s hiring.
"FIRE seeks clarity about this decision-making process to ensure TAMU, a public university, is meeting its First Amendment obligations," the letter reads. "Revoking McElroy’s original employment offer in response to powerful political forces, big donors, or alumni groups that object to her views effectuates unconstitutional viewpoint discrimination in violation of TAMU’s binding First Amendment obligations. The principle of viewpoint neutrality applies with particular strength to universities, which by their nature must be dedicated to 'free speech and creative inquiry,' as 'one of the vital centers for the Nation’s intellectual life.'"
Disclosure: Texas A&M University, Kathleen McElroy, 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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