Sign up for The Brief, The Texas Tribune’s daily newsletter that keeps readers up to speed on the most essential Texas news.
The Texas A&M University professor put on leave for allegedly criticizing Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick during a guest lecture this spring denied Wednesday that she accused Patrick of saying kids who died from opioid overdoses “deserve to die.”
The Texas Tribune reported last week that Texas A&M temporarily suspended Joy Alonzo, a respected opioids expert, after Patrick learned about the alleged comments against him and asked Texas A&M University System Chancellor John Sharp to investigate. The case has raised concerns about political interference in the university’s academic affairs.
Alonzo issued a statement denying the accusation hours after Texas Land Commissioner Dawn Buckingham, who initiated the complaint, discussed Alonzo’s alleged comments on social media for the first time.
On Wednesday, hours after the Houston Chronicle published an op-ed by Patrick in which he defended his decision to ask Texas A&M to investigate Alonzo, Buckingham posted on social media, “When a professor states, ‘Your Lt. Governor says those kids deserve to die’ regarding the group of kids in Hays County who tragically lost their lives to fentanyl … it has no place in a lecture and is indefensible.”
In 2022, there were 14 fentanyl overdoses among children 13 to 17 years old in Hays County. Parents of three Hays County students who died of overdoses put up a billboard last year with their children’s faces on it to warn of the dangers of fentanyl.
Buckingham declined multiple requests for comment before the Tribune published its initial story last week. University officials, Alonzo and Patrick have refused to specify what Alonzo was accused of saying during the March lecture.
In a statement provided by the university Wednesday, Alonzo responded, “A comment I made during a 2-hour lecture on March 7 regarding opioid overdose education and naloxone administration was mischaracterized and misconstrued. I’ve given this same presentation about 1,000 times across the state over the past few years, and I also have trained others to provide the same presentation. At no time did I say anyone deserved to die from an overdose.”
Buckingham did not hear Alonzo’s comments directly, but her daughter, who is a medical student at the University of Texas Medical Branch, attended Alonzo’s March lecture. Buckingham then alerted Patrick, who called Sharp and asked him to look into Alonzo’s comments.
Patrick’s op-ed confirmed the Tribune’s previous reporting, which found that Buckingham called to alert him that Alonzo allegedly made a statement critical of him. Patrick said he then “simply asked [Sharp] to look into the matter and determine what was actually said.”
“I would do this on behalf of any student or parent who called our office with a similar complaint,” he added.
Patrick characterized the statement that Alonzo allegedly made as a “false and inappropriate personal attack on me” but did not specify what she actually said. Neither UTMB nor Texas A&M has confirmed what Alonzo said that prompted such a reaction from university officials. UTMB students interviewed by the Tribune recalled a vague reference to Patrick’s office but nothing specific.
Ultimately, Texas A&M allowed Alonzo to keep her job after an internal investigation could not confirm she had done anything wrong. In the statement provided by Texas A&M on Wednesday, Alonzo said she agreed to go on administrative leave and was satisfied with the outcome, which she said “exonerated me of wrongdoing.”
At a press conference Wednesday in College Station, interim Texas A&M President Mark Welsh III defended the university’s handling of the Alonzo investigation but said clear policies need to be in place to guide administrators on how to handle these situations in the future.
The university’s decision to place Alonzo on administrative leave with pay while it investigated the allegations sparked outcry from free-speech advocates and faculty who have described the situation as a case of political interference and a violation of professors’ academic freedom, which presumes faculty are protected under the First Amendment to speak freely about their subject matter expertise without fear of retaliation. Academic freedom has been a longstanding principle within higher education in the United States for more than a century.
The reaction to Alonzo’s situation comes as Texas A&M also faces criticism from faculty and alumni after the Tribune reported on the bungled hiring of University of Texas at Austin professor Kathleen McElroy to run A&M’s new journalism program.
McElroy told the Tribune that the university watered down its offer from a tenured position to a one-year contract after she was told that people in the system were concerned about hiring her because she was Black and used to work at The New York Times. Outside groups also raised concerns about her diversity, equity and inclusion work. Some university administrators have resigned in the aftermath, including former university President M. Katherine Banks.
Within hours of Alonzo’s lecture in March, course leaders at UTMB also sent an email to students in the class saying Alonzo’s comments “about Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick and his role in the opioid crisis” did not represent the opinion of the university. The email also included a “formal censure” of Alonzo.
UTMB declined to comment on its decision to issue a censure, and Alonzo, whose job was at risk during the investigation, has declined to be interviewed.
Patrick said he accepted the outcome of A&M’s investigation but criticized faculty members for their “ongoing outrage” at the situation.
“Every student, parent, university booster, regent, chancellor, school president or legislator has the right to ask a question about campus conduct,” Patrick wrote. “Professors, who are largely funded by Texas taxpayers and students, are not above being held accountable.”
“Campus employees who coach sports understand what being held accountable means. A losing record will draw questions and criticism, often leading to their termination. Sports and academics are different, but all should be subject to a level of accountability,” he added.
Adam Steinbaugh, an attorney with the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, a nonprofit legal group focused on protecting free speech on college campuses, said Patrick is correct that faculty can be criticized but added, “This was not criticism.”
“This was a senior government official with his government chief of staff putting pressure on a university leader to look into one of his critics,” Steinbaugh said. “Faculty members have a First Amendment right to criticize policies and officials, and officials should not be leaning on university leaders to look into their critics.”
The Academic Freedom Alliance, a nonprofit dedicated to protecting the rights of faculty members at colleges and universities across the country, said in a letter last week that Texas A&M’s decision to act on Patrick’s request without any due diligence is problematic.
“Instead the university preferred to shoot first and ask questions later in order to mollify the sensibilities of powerful government officials,” said Keith Whittington, founding chair of the Academic Freedom Alliance. “Such actions are completely inconsistent with the principles of academic freedom that ought to be respected at a serious university, and they suggest that the university would prefer to sacrifice the constitutional rights of members of the faculty rather than risk angering state politicians.”
The Texas A&M Faculty Senate did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Patrick’s op-ed.
Earlier this week, the Faculty Senate executive committee announced that it created an investigative subcommittee to “examine the circumstances surrounding the failed hiring of [Kathleen] McElroy and the suspension of [Joy] Alonzo.” The committee will produce a report detailing what happened and provide recommendations to “avoid similar actual or apparent challenges to academic freedom going forward.”
In the statement provided by A&M on Wednesday, Alonzo also touted the work she has done at the university to combat the opioid epidemic, including the creation of the university’s Opioid Task Force, which she co-chairs, and the development of a program to teach the public about opioid overdoses and how to reverse them using the opioid-reversing drug naloxone.
Through her work, Alonzo said, more than 45,000 people have been trained to recognize opioid overdoses and try to reverse them. She said the university’s Opioid Task Force has documented more than 200 overdose reversals.
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.
More than 200 speakers are now confirmed for the 2023 Texas Tribune Festival in downtown Austin from Sept. 21-23. Each year, the Festival engages, challenges and surprises attendees with unexpected talent mashups, must-see interviews and more, curated by the award-winning journalists at The Texas Tribune. See the lineup and get tickets today.