Kathleen McElroy, who had recently served as the director of the University of Texas’s School of Journalism, was thrilled to embark on a new assignment: running a similar program at her alma mater, Texas A&M University.
The school celebrated her appointment last month with a signing ceremony, decorated with balloons.
Quickly, though, things started to unravel. Dr. McElroy, who once worked as an editor at The New York Times, said she was notified by the university’s interim dean of liberal arts, José Luis Bermúdez, of political pushback over her appointment.
“I said, ‘What’s wrong?’” Dr. McElroy recalled in an interview. “He said, ‘You’re a Black woman who was at The New York Times and, to these folks, that’s like working for Pravda.’” Dr. McElroy left The Times in 2011.
Within weeks, she said, the terms of her employment had been revised to offer her a one-year contract. She elected to return to her tenured position at the University of Texas. The Texas Tribune first reported the controversy.
In a statement, Texas A&M said that by mutual agreement, Dr. McElroy and the university had determined that a nontenured position was more appropriate and that she had been issued a one-year professorship offer letter, as well as a separate three-year administrative offer.
The university said it regretted any “misunderstanding,” and “wished Dr. McElroy well,” adding that the university was “continuing to work on building a great journalism program.”
The controversy is an example of how politics has increasingly influenced university decisions about faculty hiring, once the exclusive purview of academics.
In 2021, Nikole Hannah-Jones, a writer for The New York Times Magazine, was denied a tenured position at the University of North Carolina, after the university’s board of trustees refused to approve her appointment. Conservatives had taken issue with her involvement in The Times’s 1619 Project, which re-examined slavery in the United States.
In Dr. McElroy’s case, the exact source of the pressure was unclear, and Dr. Bermúdez declined to be interviewed. But at least one conservative Texas A&M alumni group — the Rudder Association — said it had filed a complaint about Dr. McElroy’s appointment.
Matthew Poling, the president of the group, said that members did not approve of Dr. McElroy’s work promoting diversity, equity, and inclusion. Her advocacy was the focus of an article in a conservative publication, Texas Scorecard, shortly after her appointment.
At about the time of Dr. McElroy’s hiring, Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas signed a law banning diversity, equity and inclusion offices at the state’s public universities.
“We felt she wasn’t a good fit from that,” Dr. Poling said, confirming that his organization had emailed A&M’s leadership shortly after her appointment was announced. “I think identity politics have done a lot of damage to our country, and the manifestation of that on campus, the D.E.I. ideology, has done damage to our culture at A&M.”
Dr. McElroy, a 1981 graduate of Texas A&M, was brought on after a yearlong search, under an initiative by its president, M. Katherine Banks, who wanted to revive journalism as a degree-granting program.
In addition to having a Ph.D. and decades of journalism experience, Dr. McElroy had been a devoted alumna, helping start a fund to support The Battalion, the campus newspaper. Diversity, equity and inclusion efforts had been a small part of her journalism and academic career, she said.
Dr. McElroy described a series of events in the weeks after she signed an open-ended appointment agreement naming her as a professor. Under the Texas A&M system, tenure was virtually assured, but required the approval of the Board of Regents.
Dr. McElroy said that within days of her signing the agreement, Dr. Bermúdez had advised her that, “I should go into this process with my eyes wide open. And he said it’s like abortion, guns, and you’ve got a big target on your back.”
She said that he had advised her to give up tenure in order to avoid the Board of Regents. Dr. McElroy said she had agreed and was promised a five-year contract.
By the end of June, Dr. McElroy said, Dr. Bermúdez and another university administrator asked her to prepare for a meeting with the Regents, who had seen the Texas Scorecard article.
She was excited. “I was thinking this was an opportunity to really show what A&M journalism could be.”
But in a subsequent phone call, she said that Dr. Bermúdez told her that her appointment had “stirred up a hornet’s nest,” and warned her not to give up her position at the University of Texas.
On July 9, before the meeting with the Regents, Dr. McElroy received her new contract. Instead of a five-year deal, as she said she had been promised, it was a one-year contract that underlined that she could be dismissed “at will,” she said. “It’s gut-wrenching,” said Dr. McElroy, who had made plans to purchase a home in College Station.