When Kathleen McElroy accepted an offer to head the revived journalism program at Texas A&M, I was ecstatic. The University of Texas at Austin professor, who’d spent two decades at the New York Times, wasn’t just a great journalist—she was exactly the journalist and educator that my alma mater needed for the job.
As a Black woman who graduated from A&M with a journalism degree in 1981, she understood both the strengths and the shortcomings of the institution’s culture. More importantly, she understood the Herculean task of rebuilding a program that the university had once decided wasn’t worth keeping.
But no sooner had McElroy accepted the job in June than things began to unravel. Her contract was inexplicably changed from a tenured professorship to a one-year deal with no guarantees beyond that. The interim dean of the College of Arts and Science, José Luis Bermúdez, warned McElroy that he couldn’t shield her from unnamed university leaders who were facing pressure to fire her because of “hysteria” surrounding diversity, equity, and inclusion programs.
“I think even if a white male were running this program, that that person would consider the importance of elements of DEI within the boundaries set up by the Texas Legislature,” McElroy told a Bryan television station earlier this month. “The issue that I seem to be having is that I am judged as ‘DEI’ solely because of what I look like.” She decided to keep her tenured job at a smaller school—UT.
This shameful mess has ballooned into a full-blown fiasco. Department head Hart Blanton revealed last week that the offer documents to McElroy that bore his signature were changed without his consent. A&M president Katherine Banks resigned the next day, though she had told the faculty senate she did not make those changes. Bermúdez has also stepped down, as has Shannon Van Zandt, an executive associate dean in A&M’s School of Architecture—a college far removed from the McElroy fallout. She explained to the Texas Tribune that she could no longer assure job applicants from diverse backgrounds that they would get a fair shot at employment.
A&M’s regents, all appointees of Governor Greg Abbott—who recently signed a law banning DEI programs at state universities—have been conspicuous in their silence in the face of this turmoil. Chancellor John Sharp also hasn’t said anything publicly, beyond a written statement from his spokesman that an investigation of the entire matter is underway.
Why McElroy’s contract terms were changed remains unclear, but it seems to have its roots in the influence of powerful right-wing individuals and groups. In mid-June, an article branding McElroy as a “DEI proponent” appeared in the Texas Scorecard, a conservative website run by activist Michael Quinn Sullivan and chaired by Midland oilman Tim Dunn. And the Rudder Association, a collection of former and current students, faculty, and “friends” of A&M whose stated goal is “putting the Aggie back in Aggieland,” also weighed in.
A day after McElroy’s selection was announced, Rudder president Matt Poling sent an email to Susan Ballabina, A&M’s chief external affairs officer, expressing concerns about “a possible misalignment between the hire and the recently expressed will of the citizens of the state of Texas through their legislators that universities should instead be moving away from such ideologies”—a reference to the anti-DEI law.
Poling told me in an email this week that the organization also questioned whether a candidate who had “advocated for viewpoint discrimination”—an apparent reference to McElroy’s DEI work—”was a good choice to help restore the public’s trust in journalism. He added that he believes the Rudder group was “just one voice amongst many expressing similar concerns at multiple levels of university leadership.” Ballabina said she didn’t share Poling’s email with anyone and didn’t recall hearing from any other opponents of the hiring. She did receive some comments in support of McElroy.
There’s nothing unusual about students and alumni raising concerns about a prominent university hire. What was peculiar in this case was that Texas A&M leaders reacted to that criticism without giving McElroy a chance to respond. I feel badly for her and embarrassed for my alma mater. Most of all, I mourn Aggie journalism. A revitalized program will always be something less than it could have been because university officials couldn’t or wouldn’t protect it from powerful figures who want to block the hiring of academic leaders who don’t share their political views. A&M has sent a strong message that it doesn’t take journalism seriously.
And the damage goes far beyond journalism. The largest public university in the country, with almost 75,000 students in attendance, has compromised the integrity of its hiring processes. Stories about the controversy have garnered worldwide attention. Anyone who applies for a teaching position at A&M knows they could be subjected to the whims of a shadowy group of alumni and donors.
The Rudder Association takes its name from James Earl Rudder, an Aggie who led an Army Ranger battalion in the D-Day assault on German gun emplacements atop a bluff called Pointe du Hoc. Rudder was promoted to the rank of major general, and he became president of A&M in 1958. He oversaw some of the most profound changes in the university’s history—opening admission to women and people of color and ending mandatory Corps of Cadets membership. Students and alumni were outraged, accusing Rudder of destroying A&M’s legacy. Ironically, without Rudder’s reforms, McElroy might never have matriculated in College Station.
Yet Rudder also has a troubling legacy when it comes to free speech. He censored the Battalion, the student newspaper, and in 1966 fired its editor, Tom DeFrank (later an award-winning political writer for Newsweek) for refusing to submit to the administration’s demands. “He ruled with an iron hand,” DeFrank told the Battalion in 2018. “He didn’t understand journalism or freedom of speech much, but he was a great man.”
After DeFrank’s dismissal, the university maintained a tenuous relationship with journalism. Though the administration did end up granting the Battalion significant editorial independence, the paper often faced broader acrimony. A&M is a place that values going along to get along, where a favorite saying is “Highway 6 runs both ways,” meaning “if you don’t like it, leave.” To much of the student body, conformity to the Aggie way is sacrosanct.
Battalion stories about women trying to join the Aggie band, gay students wanting to form a student organization, or even stories about NCAA recruiting violations were met with comparisons of the paper to the Russian Communist Party mouthpiece Pravda. During my stint at the Battalion, in the eighties, I wrote a column condemning the Ku Klux Klan and received a six-page response, signed by a “white patriot” who accused me of being a race traitor. That was not an isolated incident. In those pre–cell phone days, late-night telephone threats were frequent enough that I got an unlisted number. The window in my office at the paper had a hole in it, made by a bullet fired late one night at one of my predecessors as editor.
Despite these incidents, or perhaps because of them, I loved my time as an Aggie journalist and am proud of the education I received. We learned accountability in a way few journalism students do. Journalism is all about the doing, and A&M is a university of doers. On Friday afternoons, the Battalion staff would gather to hear a faculty adviser critique every story from the previous week. The criticism could be scathing, but it was usually on point. We came to understand the nature of a business where your name is publicly displayed on everything you do, and you are judged by the accuracy, precision, fairness, and nuance of the words that follow. I learned more from those critiques of published stories than I did in any classroom.
A&M was also a great place to study journalism in part because we learned how to write about uncomfortable topics in an environment where such coverage was often unwelcome. To this day, when old Aggies disagree with something I write and try to tell me I went to the wrong school, I tell them that, in fact, I went to exactly the right one. In a relatively closed culture like A&M, this can be hard for loyalists to understand. We can all care about our school and root together for the football team, even if some of us don’t wear an Aggie ring or enjoy Midnight Yell Practice.
In 2004, I found myself president of the Former Journalism Students Association, and no sooner had I been sworn in than the dean of liberal arts told us he was eliminating the journalism degree. The department had been without a head for years, and the program’s size had been bloated by students who had no interest in journalism but found refuge there after failing out of other schools. Career academics in the liberal arts college, where research is the measure of success, didn’t appreciate a skills-based program such as journalism.
Bob Gates, the former CIA director and future defense secretary, was president of A&M then, and he told me he believed strongly that a land-grant school should offer a journalism degree. But he also wanted to support his dean, and he understood the problems facing the department. The program was shuttered, but Gates allowed journalism to continue as a program that students could declare as their minor. This way, he told me, we could rebuild it someday.
Then, two years ago, Banks became president and announced a sweeping plan she called the “Path Forward,” which included restoring the undergraduate journalism degree. I was asked to join a working group of faculty and former students to develop an implementation plan. I was so encouraged by Banks’s seeming determination to revive the program that I agreed to write a report, for which my company was paid, on the Path Forward’s progress for programs other than journalism. (I’ve done other paid projects for the university over the years, and a publishing company I started a few years ago distributes its books through the Texas A&M University Press. Both my father and father-in-law were longtime A&M professors, neither in journalism.)
Our working group stressed that the key to the new journalism program’s success hinged on hiring a qualified and respected leader, one who could attract top students and educators and give the program’s degrees the gravitas needed to build careers in a rapidly changing business. It was a tall order. After killing its program, and a wrongheaded move by Banks last year to cease, without warning, the print edition of the Battalion, the school was not seen as holding journalism in high regard. Still, we had an opportunity to create a program geared for today’s world—online news, nonprofit news organizations, and new initiatives such as rural journalism projects that were ideally suited to Texas A&M.
Unfortunately, some of the regents and administrators have little understanding of journalism or, for that matter, First Amendment freedoms. Just this week, the Texas Tribune reported that an A&M professor and opioid expert was put on administrative leave and investigated after a student reported she had made disparaging comments about Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick. An internal investigation found no wrongdoing, and the professor kept her job. But it shows that intolerance of political debate has permeated the university culture.
That doesn’t foster a healthy environment for journalism. Teaching future students how to cover only the news approved by a select group of politicians, nonelected gubernatorial cronies, glad-handing donors, or other special interests isn’t journalism. It’s propaganda. Ultimately, journalism is about courage—the courage to ask questions that make the powerful uncomfortable, the courage to challenge assumptions, the courage to look in places most people would rather not, and the courage to follow the facts wherever they may lead, no matter how painful or unpleasant it may be.
Viewed through this lens, it’s not surprising that things wound up the way they did for McElroy. As long as the university is run by those who are willing to suppress free speech to protect themselves against complaints from the powerful, journalism will never thrive at Texas A&M.