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A Texas A&M University department head involved in the failed efforts to recruit a Black journalism professor said Friday that then-President M. Katherine Banks interfered in the hiring process and that 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. [Kathleen] McElroy was acknowledged by one administrator to have been based, at least in part, on race," said Hart Blanton, head of the department of communications and journalism. "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."
McElroy, a 1981 Texas A&M graduate and the former director of the University of Texas at Austin’s School of Journalism, turned down an offer to reboot A&M’s journalism program earlier this month 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 after conservative backlash arose in response to the hire. It was then lessened again to a one-year position from which she could be fired at any time. McElroy ultimately walked away from the negotiations, saying the final offer “makes it clear they don’t want me there.”
The collapse of the hire sparked outrage and concerns about academic freedom from faculty. Blanton said that Banks — who resigned from her position earlier Friday in response to the fallout — misled members of the Faculty Senate during a meeting Wednesday by telling them the decision to change McElroy’s job offer was made solely within Blanton’s department and without her involvement. Banks repeatedly told professors that she did not approve any changes to McElroy’s offer letter.
“To the contrary, President Banks injected herself into the process atypically and early on,” Blanton said.
He also said he was “shocked” to see his signature was used in the revised versions of McElroy’s job offer without his consent. He said he shared materials related to the incident with the university’s legal staff on Thursday, the night before Banks’ resignation was made public.
Blanton's one-page letter did not go into specifics, such as how Banks became involved in the process or who acknowledged that race was a factor in the debacle.
Laylan Copelin, vice chancellor for marketing and communications at the A&M System, said Friday that the system is in the early stages of an investigation into McElroy’s hiring process. That inquiry, he said, will include interviews with Blanton, Banks and others and a review relevant documents and communications. He added that system leaders “have read, heard and understood the concerns of our Aggie community stemming from the attempt to hire Dr. Kathleen McElroy.”
“We are determined to get to the bottom of what happened and why, learn from the mistakes and do better in the future,” he said.
Blanton, meanwhile, applauded Banks’ departure.
“Texas A&M cannot have its leaders misleading the faculty, public, or policymakers about how we conduct business,” he said.
The fallout from the fiasco, which has garnered national attention, has extended beyond the president’s office.
José Luis Bermúdez, the interim dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, stepped down from his role after reportedly telling McElroy he could not protect her from university leaders facing pressure to fire her over “DEI hysteria.” Shannon Van Zandt, an executive associate dean in A&M’s School of Architecture, also stepped down, saying she could no longer confidently tell job candidates from different backgrounds that they’d get a fair shot. The university’s faculty senate called for a fact-finding investigation into the efforts to recruit McElroy after expressing distrust toward university officials’ explanation of the events and questioning the role of outside influences.
The Texas Legislative Black Caucus and Texas NAACP joined the call for an independent investigation.
“The academic school year has not even begun and we have seen the reputation of one of our flagship public higher education systems crumble because of radical anti-DEI influences,” Legislative Black Caucus Chair Ron Reynolds, D-Missouri City, and Texas NAACP President Gary Bledsoe said in the joint statement.
Faculty and free speech advocates pointed to the fact that vocal conservative groups were raising issues about McElroy's previous employment at The New York Times and her support for diversity in newsrooms after her hiring was announced. The Rudder Association, which touts itself as a group of Aggies defending the core values of A&M, said it complained to university administration about the hire. The website Texas Scorecard, whose publisher is hardline conservative activist Michael Quinn Sullivan, wrote an article calling her a "'diversity' advocate."
McElroy has said she was told that not everyone was pleased by her joining the faculty. She has studied news media and race, with a focus on how to improve diversity and inclusion within newsrooms, and spent her career covering other areas like food, sports and obituaries. Her master's thesis focused on the obituaries of civil rights leaders.
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.
Disclosure: Texas A&M University, Kathleen McElroy, New York Times, The 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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