In a meeting with student leaders in February 2022, the president of Texas A&M University outlined an ambitious plan to address the school’s biggest challenges and transform it into a world-class institution.
« We have problems that we have never faced before, » the president, M. Katherine Banks, told the student senate. “We have opportunities that we have never had before. This is a unique moment in our history to position ourselves to become one of the best universities in the nation. »
Less than a year and a half later, Dr. Banks has resigned and the university is facing a crisis following the revelation that the college made shifting offers in an unsuccessful bid to hire Kathleen McElroy, a journalism professor, after backlash over the black professor’s views on race and diversity. Now, some Aggies are questioning the direction of the university – one of the largest in the world, with nearly 75,000 undergraduate students – and wondering how Texas A&M can recover from an episode that threatens to damage its reputation.
The fallout shook students and professors at the sprawling public college of College Station and sent ripples through its proud alumni network. The university, rooted in its founding traditions as a military school, is known for being more rural and more conservative than other large colleges, such as its in-state rival, the University of Texas at Austin.
Erica Davis Rouse, the incoming president of Texas A&M’s Black Alumni Student Network, said she was heartbroken when she learned of Dr. McElroy’s account that she received a series of watered-down offers from the university, which she turned down, after the conservative Aggies criticized her for her views on « diversity, equity and inclusion, » or DEI
« It would have made all the difference, » said Ms. Davis Rouse, a 1995 journalism graduate, of Dr. McElroy, who is also a former student. “This was taken away from students due to DEI hysteria and overcorrection.”
Zoe May, managing editor of the Texas A&M student newspaper, The battalion, said she wept with joy after she and the paper’s staff met with Dr. McElroy following her hiring announcement. Ms May, who is biracial, said she was upset by the university’s lack of transparency on the offers it made to Dr McElroy and disappointed it had lost a journalism leader’s hiring that she is a black woman.
“A lot of people think that representation is only important when you’re young and growing up, in TV and in movies, but I think it’s hugely important on college campuses as well,” Ms. May said.
But some other alumni were upset by the initial selection of Dr. McElroy, a former New York Times editor and longtime reporter and now a professor at the University of Texas, to lead her alma mater’s revamped journalism program. Some conservative alumni and students had criticized her for her research on race in the media and recent writings in which she described the benefits of having a diversity faculty OR editorial board.
Valerie Muñoz, a journalism student at Texas A&M, last month wrote an article for Texas Scorecard, a conservative news site, titled « Aggies Hire NY Times ‘Diversity’ Advocate To Head Journalism Program ». Ms. Muñoz highlighted a 2021 interview by WBUR’s Dr. McElroy in Boston in which she stated that journalism perceived as objective often favored a white, male perspective and that journalism was « not about getting two sides of a story or three sides of a story if one side is illegitimate. »
Preston Phillips, the president of the university’s Young Americans for Freedom chapter, a conservative student group, said critics were wrong in saying the backlash to his nomination was due to his race. He and other conservatives on campus, he said, were concerned about what his writings on diversity and race indicated about his political leanings.
« There is a concern among many conservative students and faculty that Dr. McElroy’s particular beliefs and her associations with The New York Times are a step too far, » said Mr. Phillips, who is graduating next spring with an engineering degree.
Dr. McElroy said advocacy for diversity was a small part of her journalism career, which also included interests in sports media and catering.
Texas A&M communications head Hart Blanton said Friday that a university administrator acknowledged « tighter scrutiny » over the hiring process because Dr. McElroy is black. Dr Blanton also accused Dr Banks of misleading the faculty at a meeting this week when she claimed she had little involvement in Dr McElroy’s research.
Opposition to diversity initiatives has become more of a burning issue in recent months in Texas and other states, with universities often serving as battlegrounds. Republican governors of several states, including Texas, recently signed laws banning DEI efforts at public universities and limiting mandatory diversity training.
At Texas A&M, where black students make up 2 percent of college students — a much smaller percentage than in College Station or the state as a whole — there is debate about whether or how much to invest in diversity initiatives.
A Report 2021 commissioned by the Texas A&M University System found, after surveying students, alumni, and faculty, that « large portions » of the community were « in conflict about the culture of the university » and DEI’s efforts. Some people, the report said, questioned whether the money should be spent on efforts to make the community more diverse rather than « efforts focused on education for the entire population. »
The report, by a consulting firm, identified several « threats » to the university, including its lack of diversity among faculty. The report added that Texas A&M « has historically been conservative and slow to change on diversity issues. »
Jack Begg contributed to the research.