A Philosopher’s Role in the Texas A&M Debacle (updated)


Texas A&M University will be paying Kathleen McElroy $1 million as part of legal settlement over the university’s botched efforts at trying to hire her, and then trying to not hire her.

The New York Times reports: “Texas A&M University acknowledged on Thursday that top university officials, fearing criticism from conservatives, had made ‘significant mistakes'” in the process. See here and here for further details.

Among those “top university officials” was the then-interim dean of Texas A&M’s College of Arts and Sciences, philosopher José Luis Bermúdez. He has since stepped down from that position.

Bermúdez had been communicating with McElroy during the process, discussing with her the successively less attractive job offers the university extended to her and the “political pushback” over her hiring, owing to conservative political correctness. He appeared to be playing the role of ally to McElroy while serving as an agent of M. Katherine Banks, the university president at the time, who was trying to engineer ways for the university to back away from its offer to hire her.

In general, it isn’t unusual for university employees or officials to occupy this kind of dual role during a hiring: keeping the candidate happy while pursuing the interests of the employer. But the specifics of this case have led to criticisms of the former dean and former president.

The Chronicle of Higher Education yesterday reported on the communications between Bermúdez and Banks, sharing the record of their text messages. Their exchanges are reposted below:

Obviously there is room for criticism here, but I think it is important to also note that this case illustrates, among other things, the difficult position public university administrators are put in when intense political pressures are brought to bear on their decisions, and when they must act under the heightened threat of interference from legislators and other political powers.

(Thanks to Joseph Shieber for the pointer to the CHE piece.)

UPDATE (8/5/23):  A new article at The Chronicle details some of the external pressures referred to in the last paragraph of the original post, above. For example:

On June 16, Jay Graham, a member of the Board of Regents, texted Banks and John Sharp, chancellor of the Texas A&M system.

He said he’d seen the news about McElroy’s hiring and hoped it wasn’t true. “But since it is not April Fools’ Day, I assume it is,” he wrote.

“I thought the purpose of us starting a journalism department was to get high-quality Aggie journalist [sic] with conservative values into the market,” he wrote. “This won’t happen with someone like this leading the department.”

Michael V. Hernandez, another regent, put it bluntly in an email to Banks and Sharp a few days later: “Granting tenure to somebody with this background is going to be a difficult sell for many on the BOR.” Hernandez wrote that he saw the selection of McElroy, who had built her career in New York City and Austin, Tex., as “exactly the opposite of what we had in mind for someone in that position.”…

As it turns out, McElroy wasn’t just a tough sell for the board. Two outside alumni groups — the Sul Ross Group and the Rudder Association, both of which have many conservative members — were “gunning for her” too, Bermúdez said in a July 8 text to Blanton.

“They have no power of course,” he wrote. “But people who do have power listen to them.”…


Related: “Texas A&M professor prepares to bike coast-to-coast to raise funds for Habitat for Humanity

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Christopher Gauker
10 months ago

Yes, I see that these texts were already published in the Chronicle, but I still have to question whether it was right for you to re-post them.

T.J.
T.J.
Reply to  Christopher Gauker
10 months ago

The communications of public employees engaged in carrying out their job duties is a matter of public record. What could be objectionable about sharing public records which are a matter of public interest?

R M
R M
Reply to  T.J.
10 months ago

Yeah, I mean, if you look for it you can also use my voter registration info to find out where I live. It’s publicly available information.

Do you really think posting my address on a highly trafficked blog is ever called for, bracketing imaginative cases where doing so saves the universe (or someone’s life or whatever)?

Of course, I’ve never really been able to grasp the norms of the new consensus ….maybe I just need to be educated.

T.J.
T.J.
Reply to  R M
10 months ago

Your address isn’t a matter of public interest, so it wouldn’t be a relevant example regarding the principle that it’s not objectionable to share public records which are a matter of public interest.

I can’t comment on your need to be educated.

Matt L
10 months ago

I’m constantly surprised at the people who don’t know/follow the old wise saying:

“Say it with roses, say it with mink, but never, ever, say it in ink”. I guess it’s good. It would be much harder to show lots of bad behavior otherwise.

Rollo Burgess
Rollo Burgess
10 months ago

Am I missing something? These messages are embarrassing, but they don’t seem particularly discreditable to me… with the exception of the one about deleting the messages!

Matt L
Reply to  Rollo Burgess
10 months ago

My understanding is that the university president claimed, at more than one press conference, to have not discussed the issues around the hiring at all and to have no idea what happened, and so to have told what turned out to be bald-faced lies. I suppose it’s debatable how bad that is, but it’s not super trust inspriring.

Laura
Reply to  Rollo Burgess
10 months ago

People had claimed not to know what was going on with the hire while conducting machinations behind the scenes. In public he seemed supportive of her hiring, yet privately is texting about how she’s a terrible journalist and a liar and it’s good they didn’t hire her. Wow. Where were the supposed lies?

Rollo Burgess
Rollo Burgess
Reply to  Laura
10 months ago

Thanks Laura and Matt, that’s helpful. It’s so often lying about it, rather than the actual act, that gets people in trouble isn’t it… oh what a tangled web we weave…

Dale Miller
Reply to  Laura
10 months ago

My read is that he called her a bad journalist and liar after the hire had already fallen apart, based on her public statements about what went wrong. That’s entirely consistent with his having genuinely supported the hire previously; he may have thought that he got new information in the aftermath.