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Texas Campus Conservatives are Expanding Their Crusade to Silence Leftists and Critics
They have enormous clout and are not shy of using it to “cancel” and censure professors
June 13 was meant to be a big day for Texas A&M University. Announcing the hiring of Kathleen McElroy to direct a new journalism program, nearly two decades after closing the department, the university held a festive signing ceremony, complete with maroon and white balloons. “I couldn’t pass up this opportunity to be a part of something transformational for Texas A&M, for the state of Texas and for journalism,” said McElroy, a 1981 graduate.
As things have unfolded, the event was far more consequential than the administration hoped— but not in a good way. Instead of making A&M an appealing destination for aspiring journalists and professors, the people in charge have badly sabotaged their own ambitions. And it’s not just the journalism program. Another subsequent incident involving a pharmacy faculty member demonstrates that the university has become the hostage of conservative politicians and pressure groups eager not only to enforce their brand of political correctness against their leftist opponents but also punish opinions that tread on the sensitivities of elected officials.
The DEI Bogeyman Goes Wild on Campus
The McElroy hiring began as a triumph before turning into a faceplant. Five weeks later, it led to the departure of university president, M. Katherine Banks, who noted in her resignation letter, “The negative press is a distraction from the wonderful work being done here.”
But this was not the first incident that had marred her two-year term. Her entire tenure was rocky, as she was caught between the conflicting positions of students and faculty, on the one hand, and the conservative board, appointed by Texas’ Republican governor and confirmed by state senate, and alumni groups, on the other. In another incident, she got into trouble with students upset after she cut funding for the annual campus drag show.
But that decision did not buy her much goodwill from conservative groups when it came to her appointment of McElroy. Here is what happened:
Banks signed an open-ended appointment agreement naming McElroy as a professor. Under the Texas A&M system, tenure was a near certainty, but required the approval of the Board of Regents. However, the conservative website Texas Scorecard dug up what it thought was an incriminating piece McElroy penned for the University of Texas’ student paper on the importance of faculty diversity.
In it, she had written, “Tracking our faculty demographics keeps us focused on goals that counter UT’s history as first excluding, then vacillating between being downright hostile and less than welcoming to students who do not identify as cisgender straight White men.”
The history of excluding that she was alluding to is that UT did not admit Black undergraduates until 1956, and even then, the dean of admissions voiced his desire “to exclude as many Negro undergraduates as possible.” The Longhorns hold the dubious distinction of being the last football squad to win a national championship with an all-white roster in 1969.
Qualified Black Woman’s Disqualifying Views
But within days of the Scorecard story, the interim dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, Jose Luis Bermudez, told McElroy that her appointment had sparked a backlash from conservative alumni and that, as she recalled, “he could not protect her from university leaders facing pressure to fire her over ‘DEI hysteria’ surrounding her appointment.” According to McElroy, the dean told her, “You’re a Black woman who was at The New York Times and, to these folks, that’s like working for Pravda.”
Her offer was downgraded to a one-year, nontenured position, and McElroy walked away.
One alumni group, The Rudder Association (TRA), that complained about McElroy claimed that “instead of steering the university towards a culture of merit, individual inclusion and a unity of spirit,” she would submerge it into “the morass of identity politics” by promoting woke policies of diversity, equity and inclusion that the state has banned at public universities. After her withdrawal, TRA president Matt Poling gloated: “I would say that the people of the state of Texas have spoken. This is a state institution. That is not corruption. That is democracy.”
One can object to DEI. But the notion that a Black woman who sees value in it cannot advance a “culture of merit” is prejudice masquerading as principle. It is like saying that Oppenheimer could not do quantum physics because he was a communist sympathizer.
Indeed, if McElroy’s record is any indication, she would have been a sterling addition to the university. She got a degree in journalism and reported for the A&M student newspaper. She held several editing positions at The New York Times before embarking on an academic career that earned her a tenured professorship at UT-Austin, where she directed the journalism school.
And the idea that past employment at The New York Times could be regarded as disqualifying for a journalism professor is enough to make a cat laugh. Whatever you think of its editorial page, the paper is the gold standard of newsgathering, with more than 130 Pulitzer Prizes and a commitment to breadth and depth that no other American publication can match. (However, even when it comes to the editorial page, here is what none other than Chris Rufo, the rightwing culture warrior who has made it his personal mission to discredit Critical Race Theory, tweeted after publishing an op-ed in the gray lady last week: “And I’ll say this: the Times put this piece through the most extensive editorial and fact-checking process that I’ve encountered in media. They assessed the argument, anticipated criticism, and tailored the language to connect with center-left readers. Respect.”)
Indeed, the university ought to value the fact that McElroy was a member of two groups —Blacks and women—once barred from A&M’s classes and would have arguably brought an important perspective to all sorts of topics.
For Texas A&M to back down merely because some of its constituents regarded McElroy’s outlook with suspicion was a craven betrayal of its educational mission.
But the dust from this debacle hadn’t cleared before A&M plunged into another one. Joy Alonzo, an assistant clinical professor in the College of Pharmacy, gave a talk about the opioid epidemic at the University of Texas Medical Branch and was promptly placed on administrative leave by John Sharp, a former state comptroller and a Democrat who was appointed chancellor of the multi-campus Texas A&M University System by Republican Governor Rick Perry.*
Her alleged offense? In a lecture on the reasons behind the overdose epidemic and the possible remedies, Alonzo supposedly made a comment throwing shade on Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who had previously vowed to abolish tenure at public universities in an effort to combat Critical Race Theory.
Patrick, as it happens, richly deserves criticism for his approach to the opioid overdose crisis. He blocked a bill to legalize the sale of test strips to detect the presence of fentanyl in illicit drugs, which would help drug users avoid overdoses—while waving through a measure to authorize murder charges against anyone providing fentanyl-laced drugs that are implicated in fatalities.
But one student in the audience that Alonzo was addressing happened to be the daughter of Texas Land Commissioner Dawn Buckingham, a Republican who has billed herself as a “staunch defender of the Trump agenda.” She complained to her mother, who got in touch with Patrick.
It’s unclear what exactly Alonzo said that was so offensive (students interviewed by the Texas Tribune recalled a vague reference to Patrick but nothing specific). But right away, the hammer came down on Alonzo, who was put on administrative leave pending a full investigation. She was cleared of any wrongdoing last week and reinstated— but not before UTMB officials had emailed students in the class with this stark message: “We take these matters very seriously and wish to express our disapproval of the comment and apologize for harm it may have caused for members of our community. We hereby issue a formal censure of these statements and will take steps to ensure that such behavior does not happen in the future.”
Meanwhile, the dean of the A&M pharmacy school sent Alonzo a memo complaining that “some members of the audience found your anecdote offensive.” He went on: “While it is important to preserve and defend academic freedom and as such be able to discuss and present to students and the public the results of research observations and strategies, you should be mindful of how you present your views.”
Qualifications and Quality: Two Casualties of the Texas Culture Wars
None of this bodes well for the future of Texas A&M or other public universities in the state.
The McElroy episode put the university under withering scrutiny from within and without. The head of the faculty senate said its executive committee “decries the appearance of outside influence in the hiring and promotion of faculty.” The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE), which often stands up for embattled conservative professors and students, wrote President Banks, “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.”
But the Alonzo incident shows that CRT-espousing faculty are not the only targets of Patrick and his fellow rightwingers. They want to quash even non-ideological critics. The New York Times is no Pravda but Texas conservatives are certainly acting like Soviet censors.
For Texas A&M, these episodes could hardly be more destructive—or injurious to merit, the very thing that conservatives say they want to protect. Aggrieved by McElroy’s treatment, Shannon Van Zandt, an executive associate dean at the School of Architecture, announced that she would abandon that post when her contract ends this summer. “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,” she wrote.
Meanwhile, the journalism school not only lost a respected scholar in McElroy but torpedoed its effort to create a top-notch journalism department and stained the reputation of the university. What youngster hoping to make a career in journalism would choose A&M over any number of schools offering journalism degrees, besides, that is, one who has already enlisted as a rightwing foot soldier in the culture wars? What aspiring scholar would want to relocate to College Station, where a random political opinion might be professionally fatal?
The First Amendment doesn’t allow the government to punish people, even public university professors, for what they think and say. But the First Amendment lacks friends in high places at Texas A&M and the state government. So enemies of academic freedom can find ways to harass, intimidate and silence anyone daring to challenge not just conservative dogma or Republican policies but officials.
How do you wreck a fine university? At Texas A&M, politicians are putting on a clinic.
*Correction: The article originally identified John Sharp as a Republican. We regret the error.
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