ABOVE: Kathleen McElroy is announced as director of Texas A&M’s Communications & Journalism Department in a ceremony outside the Academic Building. (Photo by Meredith Seaver/The Eagle)
The president of Texas A&M University has resigned after the botched hiring of a Black journalism professor. M. Katherine Banks resigned as president last Thursday, after a tenure marred by controversy. In Feb. 2022, she drew fire for demanding that Texas A&M’s student newspaper The Battalion stop printing immediately. Banks ordered the paper to shift to online-only publication without consulting student leaders or journalism professors, then reversed the decision after campus outcry. (The Battalion now prints once a week.) Then A&M pulled funding and sponsorship from an on-campus drag show called “Draggieland,” further angering students. But the last straw was the hiring of a leader for the school’s journalism program.
Texas A&M ended its journalism program in 2004. But Banks chose to bring back the program in 2021. One prime candidate for leadership was journalist Kathleen McElroy. McElroy is an A&M alumna (Class of 1981) who earned a bachelor’s degree in broadcast journalism. She was then hired at The Eagle and worked in news, sports and features. From 1991 to 2011, McElroy worked at the New York Times, serving in positions like deputy editor and dining editor. She was director of the journalism school at the University of Texas at Austin from 2018 to 2022.
A&M offered McElroy a position as director of the program and as a professor with tenure (pending approval by the A&M Board of Regents). She signed a contract June 13 in a ceremony complete with silver, maroon and white balloons.
The very next day, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott signed into law a bill banning diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) at publicly funded universities. The law bans universities from creating DEI offices, hiring employees for DEI work, or requiring diversity/DEI training as a condition of hiring or admission. DEI initiatives can make campuses more diverse, but they’re a target of conservatives who view them as racially divisive.
McElroy got swept up in this whirlwind. Though she wasn’t a DEI proponent, she was labeled as such by conservative publication Texas Scorecard in an article published June 15. Within days, murmurs of protest were forming. The Rudder Association (a conservative alumni group including former students and faculty) told the New York Times it had complained to campus leadership about the hire and that McElroy “wasn’t a good fit.”
On June 19, McElroy spoke with José Luis Bermúdez, interim dean of A&M’s College of Arts & Sciences. According to notes McElroy took and later shared, Bermúdez told her that the culture at A&M differed from UT’s. He said it would be difficult to have her tenure approved by the Board and advised her to forego it. McElroy verbally agreed to a five-year contract without tenure and an August meeting with the Board of Regents.
Days later, they spoke again; Bermúdez told her there was “noise in the system” about her hiring. When pressed on the reason why, he replied: “Because you’re a Black woman who worked at the New York Times.” Bermúdez told her that in some conservative circles, the New York Times is viewed as similar to Pravda — the official newspaper of the Communist Party during the days of the Soviet Union.
Then, in a July 7 phone call, Bermúdez told McElroy her hiring had “stirred up a hornet’s nest” and that “even if he hired me, these people could make him fire me.” He advised her to remain at UT. She did just that, after receiving A&M’s new offer letter on July 9. Instead of the five-year deal she’d agreed to, McElroy was offered a one-year appointment “at will,” meaning she could be fired for any reason.
On July 11, McElroy was scheduled to return to UT Austin (where she has tenure). On July 17, Bermúdez resigned from his position as interim dean, saying the hiring was a “distraction.” At a July 19 Faculty Senate meeting, Banks said there was no record of the five-year deal McElroy agreed to and that her administration was unaware of the one-year offer.
Two days later, Banks herself resigned in a letter to A&M System Chancellor John Sharp. “The recent challenges regarding Dr. McElroy have made it clear to me that I must retire immediately,” she wrote. “The negative press is a distraction from the wonderful work being done here.”
Department head Dr. Hart Blanton wasted no time spilling tea. “In a July 21 document emailed to select Texas A&M faculty, Hart Blanton, Ph.D., head of the Department of Communication and Journalism, stated former university President M. Katherine Banks was dishonest about Kathleen McElroy’s botched hiring during the July 19 emergency Faculty Senate meeting and claimed his signature was forged on the second written offer sent to McElroy,” per the Battalion.
“Then-President M. Katherine Banks misled the Faculty Senate,” Blanton wrote. “She represented that the decision-making that led to the crisis was at the department level. To the contrary, President Banks injected herself into the process atypically and early on.”
“The unusual level of scrutiny being given to the hiring of Dr. McElroy was acknowledged by one administrator to have been based, at least in part, on race,” Blanton said, adding: “I understand it to be illegal for any employer — much less a public university — to subject a job candidate to stricter scrutiny due to her race or color.”
Blanton said he didn’t agree to subsequent job offers. “I was shocked to learn an earlier draft of a job offer letter for Dr. McElroy was altered and sent to her without my advance knowledge,” he said. “The altered draft retained my electronic signature, but reduced the appointment from an earlier-discussed multiyear term to one.” Blanton’s now calling for an independent investigation, as are the Texas Legislative Black Caucus and the Texas NAACP.