COLLEGE STATION — Texas A&M University interim President Mark A. Welsh III said the university needs to establish clear guidelines to handle allegations against professors like the complaint lodged by Texas Land Commissioner Dawn Buckingham against a Texas A&M faculty member this spring that landed the professor on temporary leave as the school investigated.
During a press conference in College Station on Wednesday, Welsh said he did not think there was anything wrong with how the university handled the case involving respected opioids expert Joy Alonzo but that the incident begged for fixes to university policy.
“It was a decision that was not guided by any specific policy and guidance that we have in our system right now,” Welsh said. “We need to fix that so that we can make sure we do this in a thoughtful way with better support for the decision-maker and for Dr. Alonzo.”
In his first comments as interim president, Welsh cast recent concerns over political interference in Texas A&M’s employment decisions as “communication breakdowns” and vowed to be transparent about the findings of reviews of recent controversies. He also said he has directed a task force to look at faculty protections in cases involving academic freedom and faculty discipline.
Welsh is stepping into the presidency at a time when the flagship university is reconciling with public criticism from alumni, faculty and free-speech groups over its investigation into Alonzo and the bungled hiring of Kathleen McElroy, a respected journalism professor at the University of Texas at Austin, to revive A&M’s journalism program. The interim president will have to do damage control, tackling concerns from faculty and students about how the university responds in the face of political pressure.
In June, Texas A&M celebrated the hiring of McElroy, organizing a signing ceremony on campus to celebrate a new chapter for the school’s journalism department. McElroy, flanked by maroon and white balloons, signed an offer letter for a tenured faculty position.
But in the weeks after the signing ceremony, administrators started to renegotiate amid conservative backlash to her hiring. University officials presented her with multiple new offers that provided less job security. In early July, McElroy was offered a one-year contract teaching position and a three-year appointment as the director of the journalism program, though it noted that she could be fired at any time, she said.
The interim dean involved in hiring her told her that her appointment had been caught up in “hysteria” over diversity initiatives in Texas. After McElroy’s hiring was announced, conservative groups questioned her previous employment at The New York Times and her support for diversity in newsrooms. The Rudder Association, which touts itself as a group of Aggies defending the core values of A&M, said it complained to university administration about the hire. The website Texas Scorecard, whose publisher is hard-line conservative activist Michael Quinn Sullivan, wrote an article calling her a “diversity advocate.” McElroy ultimately turned down the watered-down offer and will remain at UT-Austin.
Welsh’s predecessor, M. Katherine Banks, abruptly resigned in the wake of the criticism over how the university handled McElroy’s hiring. Banks told members of the Faculty Senate that she did not approve changes to an offer letter that led McElroy to walk away from negotiations. But after that Faculty Senate meeting, Hart Blanton, the head of the university’s department of communications and journalism, released a statement alleging that Banks misled faculty members about her involvement in the decision to change McElroy’s job offer.
On Wednesday, Welsh was clear and curt in saying that he has no ties to the Rudder Association. He also said Senate Bill 17, the ban on diversity, equity and inclusion practices, will not change the direction A&M is headed in.
When asked about the burgeoning journalism program, Welsh said the university will continue to search for a director but is not considering going back to McElroy.
“I would hope everyone at Texas A&M would offer an apology to Dr. McElroy,” Welsh said. “And no matter what happened, this didn’t go well.”
The university is in the process of investigating McElroy’s failed hiring. Welsh and the regents have said they support the release of its findings to the public.
After Banks resigned on July 20, Texas A&M University System Chancellor John Sharp appointed Welsh, dean of the Bush School of Government and Public Service, as acting president until regents could pick an interim. The board plans to conduct a national search for a permanent president.
Welsh has been dean of the Bush School since 2016. Before that, he spent four decades in the military, serving as a top general in the United States Air Force.
Kate McGee covers higher education for the Texas Tribune, in partnership with Open Campus.
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