Texas A&M University said Friday that its president stepped down « immediately » following a conflict over the school’s changing offers to a candidate who looked set to lead its journalism school, but ultimately turned down the position after facing rejection of his diversity advocacy job.
The president, M. Katherine Banks, filed a withdrawal letter late Thursday, saying the negative focus on the director of journalism, Kathleen McElroy, was a distraction for Texas A&M, one of the largest universities in the country.
Dr Banks’ resignation came days after the dean who oversaw the university’s College of Arts and Sciences resigned and followed a tense meeting between Dr Banks and the university’s faculty senate on Wednesday.
During that meeting, Dr Banks, who had been president for just over two years, said she was sorry Dr McElroy would not be joining the university and expressed embarrassment at how the situation had been handled. But she also hinted that she knew little about the details of what she had led to the changing offers made to Dr. McElroy, a former New York Times editor and University of Texas journalism professor.
That version of events was challenged on Friday by Hart Blanton, a professor who heads the university’s communications and journalism department. He said Dr. Banks had indeed « injected herself into the process atypically and precociously » and that she had misled the faculty senate about her role.
Dr Blanton said it appeared more scrutiny had been given to hiring Dr McElroy because she is black, and also said someone had edited a draft of a job offer letter – changing the offer of a multi-year term to one year – and sent it to Dr McElroy without her knowledge, although it still included her signature. He said he shared material about the non-hire with the university’s lawyers on Thursday and was pleased to see that Dr. Banks had resigned.
The Dr. McElroy nomination debacle is the latest confrontation at the intersection of higher education, diversity and politics. Governor Greg Abbott of Texas, a Republican, signed a bill this year that will ban publicly funded college offices and programs that promote « diversity, equity, and inclusion. »
And in Florida, Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis signed legislation in May that largely bans state colleges from spending money on diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives, and prohibits the teaching of « identity politics » in some required courses.
The controversy also follows the failed appointment of another The Times-affiliated reporter, Nikole Hannah-Jones, in 2021 at the University of North Carolina. The university’s board of trustees refused to grant her the tenure after she was named president of race and investigative journalism. The rejection followed criticism, largely from conservatives, of Ms. Hannah-Jones’ involvement in The Times’ 1619 Project, which argued that 1619 — the year a group of enslaved Africans were brought to the United States — was as important to American history as the year 1776. Ms. Hannah-Jones later became the chair of race and journalism at Howard University.
In the Texas A&M case, Dr. McElroy said the university had promised her a five-year contract, but she was ultimately offered a one-year contract after complaints from a group of former students and a conservative publication about its work promoting diversity, including an opinion column he wrote in which she said it was important to hire more non-white faculty.
Dr. McElroy has covered a range of topics over her decades in journalism, from sports to food, and said in a previous interview with The Times that diversity efforts were a small part of her journalism and academic career.
A 1981 A&M graduate, Dr. McElroy finally turned down the one-year contract with the school, she said, and the episode became a real crisis for the university after The Texas Tribune previously reported about the conflict. Dr. McElroy described a series of conversations in which the dean of A&M’s College of Arts and Sciences told her there had been a political rejection of her nomination.
“I said, ‘What’s wrong?’” Dr. McElroy recalled her conversation with the principal, José Luis Bermúdez. « She said, ‘You’re a black woman who was at the New York Times and, for these people, it’s like working for Pravda.' »
In a statement on Friday, Dr. McElroy said she was « deeply grateful for the outpouring of support I have received, particularly from Aggies across all majors and from my former and current students. » She added that she would comment further in the future. « There is so much more I could and will say about what happened, » she said.
The collision of academia and politics took place in an institution at the heart of Texas identity and culture. With nearly 75,000 students, Texas A&M, in College Station, about 95 miles northwest of Houston, is the state’s other higher education leviathan: the more rural and more conservative rival of the University of Texas at Austin. It is a university determined to be considered among the world-class research institutions, but also intensely focused on its traditions and its beginnings as a school made up of students from agricultural towns, who then sent them to the military.
The school is known for the fervent loyalty of its graduates. And even by Texas standards, it’s defined by a celebration of the state and big sports, especially Aggie Football. Black students make up a disproportionately small percentage of both Texas A&M (2%) and the University of Texas at Austin (5%), compared to the state as a whole (13.4%) or the cities where the universities are located.
What remained a mystery even after Dr. Banks’ resignation was exactly why the university changed its offer to Dr. McElroy. A conservative alumni group, the Rudder Association, had emailed A&M’s leadership following the announcement of his appointment and said in a statement that A&M should shun « the divisive ideology of identity politics ». On Friday, the group’s chairman, Matt Poling, said he appreciated Dr. Banks’ service to the university.
To the Wednesday meeting of the Faculty Senateprofessors had sharply criticized the university’s bungling over Dr McElroy’s appointment, with some saying criticism of Dr McElroy’s work to promote diversity shouldn’t have taken into account her hiring.
« What’s not okay is that the university is assumed to have come back with a contract, and what’s even more not okay is the perception that the reason the initial contract didn’t go through was not because of merit, but rather because of the candidate’s views or demographics, » said Tracy Anne Hammond, computer science professor and faculty senate speaker. She added, « Right now, the faculty and the world have lost faith in Texas A&M University, and that’s a big deal. »
Dr Banks described a breakdown in communication trying to hire Dr McElroy, but said the university had stood by the offers he had made.
« Based on what I understand, at all points in this process, she would have come here, » Dr. Banks said, adding that she still wanted Dr. McElroy to join the university.
But he faced tough questions from faculty members, many of whom criticized what they called political meddling in the university’s hiring process and an embarrassing sequence of events.
« Apparently, nobody knows who made the offer, nobody knows how many offers were made, nobody knows who signed which offer and nobody knows who read or wrote those offers, » said Raymundo Arróyave, an engineering professor. « Frankly, we look incompetent. »
NK Anand, the deputy chair for faculty affairs, said at the meeting that the first letter of offer to Dr. McElroy was for a tenured position and that a second letter of offer — for a one-year and three-year faculty director role — was signed only by the department head. He said the university has been unable to locate any five-year offer letters.
The faculty senate passed a resolution to create a fact-finding committee to examine how the hiring of Dr. McElroy was handled. University system officials said on Friday they were in the early stages of an investigation into what went wrong: « We are determined to get to the bottom of what happened and why, learn from mistakes and do better in the future, » a university system spokesman said in a statement.
In another statement on Friday, Chancellor John Sharp said Mark A. Welsh III, dean of government at the university and public service school, would take over as interim president.
Stephanie Saul AND Rick Rojas contributed report.