Texas A&M’s Recruitment Misstep: $1 Million Settlement Reached with Journalism Professor

Several high-level Texas A&M University System officials — including regents and the flagship campus’ president — were involved in discussions about how to handle a Black journalism professor’s job offer after conservatives criticized her hiring, according to an internal report released Thursday.

The details of the report contradict former Texas A&M University President M. Katherine Banks’ earlier claims that she was unaware that the school had watered down its offer to Kathleen McElroy after pushback to her hiring. Banks abruptly retired last month amid turmoil spurred by the botched hiring.

The report also confirms the unusual involvement of system-level regents, who are gubernatorial appointees, in a university-level hire. And the report confirms that university leadership tried to delay the announcement of McElroy’s hiring until after this year’s legislative session ended.

Texas A&M on Thursday also confirmed it would pay $1 million to McElroy in a settlement.

The report also includes an internal review of how respected opioids expert Joy Alonzo was suspended after she was accused of criticizing Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick in a lecture.

The report is the latest bomb to drop as Texas A&M administrators reconcile with employment scandals that have rocked the Aggie community over the last few weeks and raised questions about the level of outside interference in university-level decisions that led to multiple resignations, including Banks’.

Both personnel controversies were first reported by The Texas Tribune.

The report was released to the public days after the regents directed the office of general counsel to conduct a “complete and thorough investigation” into what happened and gave university lawyers the green light to negotiate a settlement with McElroy.

In a joint statement, McElroy’s lawyer and the university also announced Thursday that it had reached a settlement with McElroy, though details were not immediately available. The university apologized to McElroy and acknowledged “mistakes were made” during the attempt to hire her.

“Texas A&M University remains in my heart despite the events of the past month,” McElroy said in a statement. “I will never forget that Aggies – students, faculty members, former students and staff – voiced support for me from many sectors. I hope the resolution of my matter will reinforce A&M’s allegiance to excellence in higher education and its commitment to academic freedom and journalism.”

The two situations have left Texas A&M faculty uneasy over the potential chilling effect on speech — and the possible fostering of a fearful culture in which professors agonize over the political ramifications of their work.

It has also raised concerns about how these events have damaged the university’s reputation and could slow efforts to recruit and retain academic talent, eclipse decades of work, and erode the love and devotion that students, instructors and alumni have poured into a beloved institution.

In a press conference this week, interim President Mark Welsh III pledged to increase transparency with the Aggie community and pledged his commitment to help the university move past the recent turmoil.

“It’s really important for even great, great institutions to occasionally step back and take a real honest look in the mirror,” he said. “As soon as we get all the facts available to us, we need to make decisions on how we prevent getting into these situations in the future.”

Last month, the Tribune reported that McElroy had decided to stay at the University of Texas at Austin just weeks after Texas A&M held a public signing ceremony announcing her hire to run the revived journalism department.

In the weeks following the initial offer, McElroy told the Tribune, Texas A&M started to walk back its details, reducing it from a tenured position to ultimately a one-year teaching contract and a three-year offer to serve as the director of the journalism program.

McElroy told the Tribune that José Luis Bermúdez, the former interim dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, said that there were concerns from within the A&M system about her hiring because of her prior work to build diverse and inclusive newsrooms and her experience at The New York Times.

In early July, McElroy said that Bermúdez advised her to remain at UT-Austin in her tenured position because he could not protect her if outside forces wanted her gone. McElroy listened.

The news of Texas A&M’s failed recruitment garnered national media attention and outrage from faculty organizations and alumni groups demanding the school explain what exactly happened.

“How this University treated this respected, honored, qualified, experienced, successful, and tenured fellow Aggie is unacceptable and would have been unthinkable yet for her race and gender,” leaders of the Black Former Student Network wrote to Texas A&M University System Chancellor John Sharp.

“The fact that this University outwardly promotes very laudable principles in the Aggie Core Values, yet you don’t have the character nor the courage to follow these Core Values as the leader of this University reveals the deep chasm between your words and your actions.”

In a meeting with the Faculty Senate days after the news broke, Banks and other administrators said they were unaware of the changes made to the original offer letter.

“I am embarrassed that we are in a situation where we have an offer that was released without the proper approvals. I was surprised by that,” Banks said during the meeting. “However, it’s important to note that we honored that letter, we honored all of the letters, because it was of no fault to the candidate, who was very, very qualified, that our administrative structure broke down.”

But after the meeting, Hart Blanton, the communications and journalism department head involved in the failed effort to recruit McElroy, said Friday that Banks interfered in the hiring process and that race was a factor in university officials’ decision to water down her job offer.

“To the contrary, President Banks injected herself into the process atypically and early on,” Blanton said.

Blanton said he shared “related materials” with university lawyers on July 21. Hours later, Banks submitted her resignation to Sharp, which was first reported by the Tribune the following day.

“Texas A&M cannot have its leaders misleading the faculty, public, or policymakers about how we conduct business,” Blanton said.

The new report also includes an internal investigation of what happened when Texas A&M University temporarily suspended A&M Professor Joy Alonzo, a respected opioids expert, after Texas Land Commissioner Dawn Buckingham alleged that the professor made a comment criticizing Patrick, the Texas lieutenant governor, during a guest lecture to her daughter’s class at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston. The Tribune first reported that situation two weeks after the McElroy story.

In mere hours, Buckingham called Patrick who called Sharp and asked him to investigate. Texas A&M previously said the request made its way down the chain of command to the university, where the Division of Risk, Ethics, and Compliance placed Alonzo on leave while they investigated. UTMB issued a “formal censure” of Alonzo, though university leaders would not confirm what Alonzo was alleged to have said.

The case has also raised concerns about political interference in the university’s academic affairs.

Texas A&M University System spokesperson Laylan Copelin said in a statement that Sharp’s text to Patrick was a “typical update,” saying it is not unusual for the chancellor to “keep elected officials informed when something at Texas A&M might interest them.”

“It is not unusual to respond to any state official who has concerns about anything occurring at the Texas A&M System,” said Copelin, who said the system followed standard procedure to look into the claim.

But days later, the Faculty Senate sent a letter to interim-President Welsh demanding the university clarify its administrative leave policies and ensure they are properly followed.

“From the faculty’s perspective, Professor Alonzo’s administrative leave appears to have been instigated on a hasty reaction that short-circuited reasonable due process under the circumstances,” Hammond wrote. “We want to work with you to avoid that kind of outcome in the future.”

On Wednesday, the Houston Chronicle published an op-ed by Patrick in which he defended his decision to ask Texas A&M to investigate Alonzo. Hours later 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.”

Hours later, Alonzo released a statement through Texas A&M University denying those claims and stating her comments were “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,” Alonzo said. “At no time did I say anyone deserved to die from an overdose.”

The Texas A&M Faculty Senate is also investigating what happened in both situations involving McElroy and Alonzo. Earlier this week, the Faculty Senate announced a three-person investigative subcommittee to examine both circumstances. It’s unclear what the timeline is for that investigation.