Three things student journalists can learn from the Texas A&M Kathleen McElroy hiring debacle

THE LEAD: Texas A&M screwed the pooch when it came to the Kathleen McElroy hiring and is now literally paying for it:

Texas A&M University reached a $1 million settlement with a Black journalism professor who said her tenured position offer fell apart after backlash to her work on diversity and equity efforts, the university announced Thursday.

The university’s leadership apologized to Kathleen McElroy for “the way her employment application was handled” in June when the terms of her proposed contract changed dramatically.

The CNN lead is a bit “sanitized,” but things got ugly as hell in the middle of this saga, that led to the resignation of both the interim dean who would have overseen McElroy and the university president, whom we’ve discussed here before. The Texas-based press was more damning, if not long-winded:

The Texas A&M University System reached a $1 million settlement with Kathleen McElroy and made a public admission that then-President M. Katherine Banks derailed the potential journalism director’s hiring after alumni, including a conservative-leaning group called The Rudder Association, voiced concerns about McElroy’s experience in diversity, equity and inclusion.

The system’s Office of General Counsel released a lengthy report about its internal investigation Thursday, following mounting pressure from faculty who fear that outside interference at the university has infringed on their rights in the hiring and promotion process and chilled their speech in the classroom.


BULLETS AND GUNS: Despite saying she was unaware of everything going on, text messages between Banks and interim Dean José Luis Bermúdez proved otherwise. The incongruity between what Banks said publicly and privately proved to be a “smoking gun” in this whole mess:

While then-President M. Katherine Banks told faculty leaders in a public meeting that she did not know of any regressive changes to McElroy’s contract, the texts prove otherwise. They show her and José Luis Bermúdez, then-interim dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, orchestrating a plan to move the journalist to a multiyear nontenured professorship and multiyear at-will directorship, which they said would be necessary to get her approved by Texas A&M’s Board of Regents.

The texts show the pair drafting a public defense as to why the changes made sense for McElroy’s purposes. Banks told Bermúdez, “If you get this done, you get a bonus.” They also indicated that nothing would be guaranteed for McElroy.

Banks also used a weapons-based analogy in how lucky TAMU got in making McElroy’s job offer so lousy that McElroy had to back out:

Bermúdez later apologized to Banks, who told him not to worry.

“I think we dodged a bullet,” Banks said. “She is an awful person to go to the press before us.”

“A terrible journalist too,” Bermúdez said.”Completely self-serving.”

Bermúdez said McElroy lied in much of her interview with the Tribune, and Banks responded that she had already told A&M’s chancellor that was the case.

“Just think if she had accepted!!! Ugh,” she texted.

When it came to “dodging a bullet,” I think Banks saw herself this way in this situation:

But it was really more like this…


SHORT SUMMARY: McElroy landed relatively well, in that she has a job back where she was, an apology from the people who messed with her and $1 million settlement to boot. One good friend of mine who is a professor down there noted that the bigger concern is how political pressure came to bear on the academic world in this truly terrible way, and she’s right. That needs some serious overhauling, but for a one-person, one-situation thing, this arc has now closed.


KEY LESSONS FOR JOURNALISM STUDENTS: The whole point of the blog is to help you learn something from everything we see or do, so here are three key things journalism students can take with them in analyzing this mess.

DON’T ACCEPT THE PUBLIC NARRATIVE: We’ve said this a dozen different ways on the blog, including “Trust but verify,” and “If your mother says she loves you, go check it out,” but it bears repeating here: When people tell you something, don’t take it at face value until you are satisfied that it is accurate.

The image Banks put out of being as innocent as a newborn kitten when it came to all of this basically fell apart once people started digging into what she knew and when she knew it. It also didn’t help her case that she put a lot of her “less-pleasant opinions” in writing via text messages.

As a reporter, you should listen to what people tell you and you should definitely record and report what they say. That said, you can’t just rely on that alone, or else your less reporter and more stenographer. Take what they say and use other people, documents and resources to challenge what you have learned. In some cases it will support that narrative, but in many others, you’ll find significant deviations from the public script.


SOURCES MATTER: This whole situation started to unravel in early July when the Texas Tribune published the key story about the situation unraveling. Texas has literally scores of outstanding major media outlets in print, broadcast and web that are capable of handling a story like this, but the Tribune got there first.

Why? They had McElroy as a source and a connection:

Disclosure: Kathleen McElroy, Texas A&M University, The New York Times, the Texas A&M University System and the University of Texas at Austin have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

This is in no way a rip on the Tribune, the staff there or anyone else involved in this really important and well-crafted story. It’s merely to point out the fact that a source found the Tribune to be a trustworthy media outlet that would tell a story and do so in a way that gave the source faith. McElroy could have picked up the phone and called the Dallas Morning News, the Houston Chronicle, the Austin-American Statesman, WFAA or a dozen other places and probably been fine. However, when she and the Tribune connected, an appropriate level of trust and understanding between source and media outlet emerged and we all benefited from this symbiosis.

This is why getting to know sources and developing trustworthy relationships with people we cover can matter so much. I don’t know if I’d trust a random reporter who called me about a story, but there are specific reporters I’d gladly help in many ways because I know who they are and we have established a strong relationship over the years. This is the bedrock of good journalism, and it needs to be something we get back to, now that we don’t have to do every interview on Zoom, for fear of COVID.


JOURNALISM HAS INFLUENCE: There are plenty days in this field when it seems like we don’t do a lot or that we don’t matter for much, but stories like this reinforce the value we have as a profession. Had it not been for the media spotlight and subsequent digging, this situation would have likely gone away in a quiet fashion and no one would have really been the wiser.

However, because someone decided to put the public eye on this issue, a number of changes have occurred. (You can argue if those are big enough changes or the right ones, but that’s not the argument I’m going for here…) You had leadership change, you had a report on this issue, you had the exposure of outside influence on this, you had a financial settlement and you had an apology. It might or might not be enough, but it’s more than it would have been, if not for the role of journalism.

You don’t have to overthrow a government or right a social wrong through your student newspaper to have influence. My favorite story was one in which the student newspaper I was advising got wind of the university’s decision to start charging students 10 cents for a cup of ice water at the campus eateries. They reported on the issue and the students made such a stink about it, the admin backed off. You can say it’s just a dime, but it’s another example of local journalism having a direct impact on a situation in favor of its readers.


FINAL SIDE NOTE: During the debacle that was, I wrote an open letter to Dr. McElroy, tongue mostly planted in cheek, telling her to “drop those zeroes” and get with the heroes over here at UWO because everything here was amazingly cool. In the intervening week, we some how managed to make Sam Bankman-Fried look financially well-balanced:

UW-Oshkosh plans to cut about 200 non-faculty staff and administrators this fall, while furloughing others, UW-Oshkosh Chancellor Andrew Leavitt said Thursday, as the university faces an unprecedented $18 million budget shortfall. The cuts amount to about 20% of university employees.

“It is no longer sustainable for us to operate without dramatic reduction in expenses,” Leavitt said in an email to employees.

Long story short, I clearly have the predictive power of Jim Cramer these days, so trust me on the journalism and less so on the future.




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