Bungled Hiring of Journalism Director Exposes a Rift at Texas A&M

At a meeting with student leaders in February 2022, the president of Texas A&M University described an ambitious plan to confront the school’s biggest challenges and turn it into a world class institution.

“We have problems we’ve never faced before,” the president, M. Katherine Banks, told the student senate. “We have opportunities we’ve never had before. This is a unique time in our history to position us to become one of the top universities in the nation.”

Less than a year and a half later, Dr. Banks has resigned her post and the university is facing a crisis following the revelation that the college made shifting offers in a failed effort to hire Kathleen McElroy, a journalism professor, after a 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 undergraduates — and wondering how Texas A&M can recover from an episode that threatens to harm its reputation.

The fallout has rocked students and professors at the vast public university in 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, like its in-state rival, the University of Texas at Austin.

Erica Davis Rouse, the incoming president of Texas A&M’s Black Former Student Network, said she was heartbroken when she learned about Dr. McElroy’s account of receiving a series of watered-down offers from the university, which she turned down, after conservative Aggies criticized her over her views on “diversity, equity and inclusion,” or D.E.I.

“She would have made a difference,” Ms. Davis Rouse, who graduated in 1995 with a degree in journalism, said of Dr. McElroy, who is also an alumna. “That was taken away from the students because of D.E.I. hysteria and overcorrection.”

Zoe May, the incoming editor of Texas A&M’s student newspaper, The Battalion, said she teared up with joy after she and the newspaper’s staff met with Dr. McElroy following the announcement of her hiring. Ms. May, who is biracial, said she was troubled by the university’s lack of transparency over the offers it made to Dr. McElroy and disappointed to lose out on hiring a journalism leader who is a Black woman.

“A lot of people think that representation is only important when you’re young, and you’re growing up, on TV and in movies, but I think it’s also extremely important on college campuses,” Ms. May said.

But some other alumni were troubled by the initial selection of Dr. McElroy, a former New York Times editor and longtime journalist and now a professor at the University of Texas, to lead her alma mater’s revived journalism program. Some conservative alumni and students had criticized her for her research on race in media and recent writings in which she described the benefits of having a diverse faculty or newsroom.

Valerie Muñoz, a journalism student at Texas A&M, last month wrote an article for Texas Scorecard, a conservative news website, under the headline “Aggies Hire NY Times ‘Diversity’ Advocate To Head Journalism Program.” Ms. Muñoz highlighted a 2021 interview of Dr. McElroy by WBUR in Boston in which she said that journalism that was 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 chairman of the university’s Young Americans for Freedom chapter, a conservative student group, said critics were wrong to say that the backlash to her appointment was because of her race. He and other conservatives on campus, he said, were worried about what her writings on diversity and race indicated about her political leanings.

“There is a concern among a lot of the conservative students and faculty that Dr. McElroy’s particular beliefs and her associations with The New York Times are too far a step,” said Mr. Phillips, who is set to graduate next spring with an engineering degree.

Dr. McElroy has said that advocating for diversity has been a small part of her career in journalism, which also included interests in sports media and dining.

On Friday, the head of Texas A&M’s communications department, Hart Blanton, said an administrator at the university had acknowledged a “stricter scrutiny” on the hiring process because Dr. McElroy is Black. Dr. Blanton also accused Dr. Banks of misleading the faculty in a meeting this week when she claimed that she had little involvement in the pursuit of Dr. McElroy.

Opposition to diversity initiatives has become more of a hot-button issue in recent months in Texas and in other states, with universities often serving as battlegrounds. Republican governors in several states, including Texas, have recently signed laws banning D.E.I. efforts at public universities and limiting mandatory diversity training.

At Texas A&M, where Black students make up 2 percent of undergraduates — a far smaller proportion than in College Station or the state as a whole — there is debate about whether or how much to invest in diversity initiatives.

A 2021 report commissioned by the Texas A&M University System found, after surveying students, alumni and faculty, that “large portions” of the community were “conflicted about the university’s culture” and D.E.I. efforts. Some people, the report said, questioned whether money should be spent on efforts to make the community more diverse rather than on “education-focused endeavors for the entire population.”

The report, by a consulting firm, identified several “threats” to the university, which included its lack of faculty diversity. The report added that Texas A&M “has historically been conservative and slow to change regarding diversity issues.”

Jack Begg contributed research.

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