Update: A&M’s Bush School dean Welsh named acting president in wake of Banks resignation

Texas A&M University President M. Katherine Banks at the Zachry Engineering Education Complex in College Station on March 30, 2021. Credit: Mark Felix for The Texas Tribune

After a week of turmoil over the botched hiring of a Black journalist to revive the Texas A&M University journalism department, M. Katherine Banks resigned as the university’s president.

Mark A. Welsh III, dean of the Bush School of Government and Public Service, will serve as acting president until the Board of Regents can meet to name an interim president. Texas A&M System Chancellor John Sharp has recommended they appoint Welsh as an interim until the board can do a national search for a new president. Banks’ resignation is effective immediately. She will receive no severance from the university.

In a letter sent to A&M System Chancellor John Sharp Thursday evening, Banks wrote, “The recent challenges regarding Dr. [Kathleen] McElroy have made it clear to me that I must retire immediately. The negative press is a distraction from the wonderful work being done here.”

The fallout over McElroy’s hiring, which has garnered national media attention, marks the culmination of Banks’ two-year tenure, which was often met with pushback from faculty and students who consistently raised concerns with the direction she was taking the university and the way in which her administration was communicating its vision.

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During that time, faculty leaders have passed resolutions calling for more involvement in university decisions, and research leaders on campus raised concerns with her administration’s decision-making. She was forced to walk back the decision to abruptly end the print publication of the university’s student newspaper, The Battalion, after students and alumni protested. Her administration also faced pushback from students after the school decided to cut funding and sponsorship of an annual campus drag show, known as Draggieland. Throughout all of that, Sharp has remained supportive of Banks’ leadership.

In response to the news, McElroy told the Tribune in a text message Friday evening: “I’m deeply grateful for the groundswell of support I’ve received, especially from Aggies of all majors, and my former and current students. There’s much more I could say and will say about what has unfolded. But for now, I’ll reserve those statements for a future date.”

The latest fracas on campus that led to Banks’ resignation comes after the university’s faculty senate passed a resolution Wednesday to create a fact-finding committee into the mishandling of the hiring of McElroy. During that meeting, Banks took responsibility for the flawed hiring process but told faculty members that she did not approve changes to an offer letter that led a prospective journalism professor to walk away from negotiations amid conservative backlash to her hiring.

However, Hart Blanton, the head of the university’s department of communications and journalism who was closely involved in McElroy’s recruiting, said in a statement Friday that Banks interfered with the hiring process early on and that race was a factor in university officials’ decision to water down the job offer.

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The university system’s office of general counsel has begun an investigation into the failed hiring, said Laylan Copelin, vice chancellor of marketing and communication. The probe will include reviews of all events, communications and documents as well as interviews with key university officials like Banks and Blanton.

“We are determined to get to the bottom of what happened and why, learn from the mistakes and do better in the future,” Copelin said in a statement.

McElroy, an experienced journalism professor currently working at the University of Texas at Austin who previously worked as an editor at The New York Times, turned down an offer to reboot A&M’s journalism program after a fraught negotiation process first reported by The Texas Tribune. What originally was a tenure-track offer was reduced to a five-year position, then to a one-year position from which she could be fired at any time.

“This offer letter … really makes it clear that they don’t want me there,” McElroy said last week about the one-year contract. “But in no shape, form or fashion would I give up a tenured position at UT for a one-year contract that emphasizes that you can be let go at any point.”

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Initially, Texas A&M celebrated hiring McElroy with a public signing ceremony to announce her hiring. But in the weeks following, vocal groups from outside the university system expressed issues with her previous employment at The New York Times and her support for diversity in newsrooms. McElroy has said she was told that not everyone was pleased by her joining the faculty. Critics of her hiring focused on her prior work on diversity and inclusion.

McElroy said she was further told by José Luis Bermúdez, then interim dean of Texas A&M’s College of Arts and Sciences, that there was “noise in the [university] system” about her, though he did not give specifics. When she pressed him, she said he told her, “you’re a Black woman who worked at The New York Times.” He told her that in some conservative circles, The New York Times is akin to Pravda, the newspaper of the Communist Party in Russia that began in the early 1900s.

McElroy said that Bermúdez ultimately told her he could not protect her from university leaders facing pressure to fire her over “DEI hysteria” surrounding her appointment and advised McElroy to stay in her tenured role at UT-Austin.

Earlier this week, Bermúdez announced he would step down from his role as interim dean at the end of the month.

One group that voiced concern to the administration about McElroy’s selection was The Rudder Association, a conservative alumni group that has previously attempted to exert influence over A&M system officials. In a statement issued last week, the alumni group was critical of McElroy but rejected that its advocacy contributed to the university officials’ decision to scale back her job offer.

In response to Banks’ resignation Friday, The Rudder Association Matt Poling said: “We join with others in appreciation of her now nearly 12 years of dedicated service to Texas A&M including the last two as president of our great university.”

Faculty raised concerns this week about the role of outside influences in the university’s hiring practices. During a meeting with the faculty senate Wednesday, Banks said she hasn’t met with The Rudder Association since her term as president started two years ago, and Vice President of Faculty Affairs N.K. Anand said no outside groups contacted him or his office regarding McElroy’s hiring.

On Thursday evening, Sharp said in a letter to faculty that he shared their concerns about outside influences on hiring and promotion practices. He said he plays no role in hiring processes except for three top positions: the university’s president and the vice chancellors of agriculture and engineering.

“Outside influence is never welcome, nor invited. It also is frustrating when outside groups try to take credit for some action, sowing doubt and discord among the Aggie family,” Sharp wrote. “Other than [those three positions], I don’t believe it is my place to be a part of the hiring process for faculty.”

McElroy’s hiring and decision to stay at UT-Austin came as universities across the state are dismantling diversity, equity and inclusion offices after the state passed a law banning them this year.

In the days following the Tribune’s reporting, faculty leaders condemned the university’s administration for its role in failed contract negotiations with McElroy.

Tracy Hammond, speaker for the Texas A&M Faculty Senate, wrote in a letter addressed to both Banks and Sharp that the group’s executive committee “decries the appearance of outside influence in the hiring and promotion of faculty.”

This is not the first time faculty have raised concerns with Banks since she became president two years ago after spending a decade as the vice chancellor and Dean of Engineering at Texas A&M.

Upon her appointment, she immediately hired MGT Consulting to review A&M’s organizational structure and provide recommendations for change. In December 2021, she announced 41 recommendations that she had accepted and implemented throughout her first year.

The recommendations include combining A&M’s College of Liberal Arts, College of Science and College of Geosciences into the College of Arts and Sciences; launching a new School of Performance, Visualization & Fine Arts to house performance studies, dance and visualization programs under one roof; and reviving the journalism department.

Other changes were met with more pushback. She restructured the university’s libraries so they no longer house tenured faculty, forcing tenured librarians to switch to another academic department in order to keep their tenure or lose it entirely. New hires will not be eligible for tenure moving forward.

Banks also approved a restructuring of the Qatar campus, a branch of Texas A&M in the Middle East that offers engineering undergraduate and graduate degrees.

Qatar faculty who work in areas beyond engineering will no longer be able to conduct research. Faculty who teach in areas that can grant degrees will shift from rolling contracts to fixed-term contracts for up to five years, and faculty who teach in nondegree-granting areas will be on annual contracts, which critics argue will create more job insecurity. Finally, Banks consolidated school leadership under one dean.

Critics have argued that changing the faculty contract process will make it more difficult to recruit quality professors, and many will leave Qatar.

Earlier this year, Banks drew criticism from researchers on campus after the Council of Principal Investigators, an elected group of faculty and researchers who help oversee research activity at the school, conducted a survey that found “widespread discontent,” according to responses from “principal investigators” — faculty and researchers within the A&M system who are allowed to oversee research grants.

Overall, the poll found that these principal investigators do not trust the current administration, and many feel that administrators are cultivating an environment of fear and intimidation on campus. In the survey responses, research faculty lamented that the university has made too many interim appointments and “unqualified leadership appointments” rather than conducting national searches to fill open positions, which has led to “incompetent handling of issues.” They also felt the administration was “insincere” about their efforts to have faculty involved in long-term planning and decision-making.

The council decided to organize the poll in December 2022 after a well-respected chemist at Texas A&M, Karen Wooley, wrote a letter to Banks warning that many of the changes she had made since starting as president were “causing substantial disruptions and threatening the integrity of this prestigious and precious institution.”

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune.