Professors caught in political crosshairs at A&M

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The Republican war on academic freedom is taking a severe toll at Texas A&M, where political meddling and conservative ideology chased off a prized journalism faculty recruit, nearly cost a prominent pharmacology professor her job and led to the resignation of the university’s president.

The fallout has rattled students and alumni, and sparked A&M’s faculty to demand a meeting with Chancellor John Sharp to discuss the political threats to their profession and the university’s reputation. All Texans should share in their concerns. Academic freedom is the lifeblood of an informed citizenry and an essential component of a healthy democracy. Politics and political agendas should never constrict the free flow of ideas at our institutions of higher learning. And politicians should in no way be involved in the hiring, firing or disciplining of university professors.

Professors caught in political crosshairs at A&M

Academic freedom is clearly in jeopardy in Texas, where Gov. Greg Abbott recently signed a law banning diversity, equity and inclusion offices and initiatives at public universities, and a professor accused of disparaging Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick was retaliated against. On Tuesday, the Texas Tribune reported that Joy Alonzo, an opioid policy expert and professor in Texas A&M’s Department of Pharmacy Practice, nearly lost her job because she criticized Patrick in a March lecture that touched on the state’s anemic response to the opioid crisis. Republican Texas Land Commissioner Dawn Buckingham got wind of the professor’s remarks and initiated a complaint. Within two hours, Patrick’s chief of staff emailed a link to Alonzo’s faculty bio to Sharp, a former Texas comptroller. According to records obtained by the Tribune, Sharp then texted Patrick to inform him Alonzo had been placed on administrative leave and could be fired within the week. Thankfully, common sense prevailed and Alonzo—a popular professor and rising star on the Texas A&M faculty—was allowed to keep her job.

Only a week earlier, Kathleen O. McElroy, a Black professor at the University of Texas resigned from her new job as head of Texas A&M’s revived journalism program amid complaints that race was a factor in watering down her initial job offer. That offer held the possibility of tenure, but after conservative special interest groups and critics within the university system complained to A&M brass about her professorial research on diversity, equity and inclusion in newsrooms, the offer was dialed back to just one year. Exasperated, McElroy walked away from the deal. The public relations debacle—a real-world consequence of conservative complaints about DEI initiatives— led to the resignation of Texas A&M president Katherine Banks on July 21.

Conservative attacks are part of a larger pattern

Conservative interference in academia in Texas, Florida and other GOP-led states is another manifestation of the far-right’s attempt to regulate how we live in areas where there is no call or need for government policy —from what we teach and read, to what we do in the bedroom and with our bodies, and if we’re allowed to take water breaks at work. The prohibition on DEI initiatives, in particular, rests on Republican claims that the policies amount to reverse discrimination and that the intent behind them is to hire less qualified candidates because of their skin color, sexual orientation, disability or other distinguishing characteristics. In reality, the initiatives only aim to give those who have historically been under-represented or discriminated against equal footing in the job market.

The political attacks on academia at Texas A&M, one of the world’s largest university systems, are an affront to the concept of academic freedom and tarnish the reputation of higher education in our state. In a democracy, academic freedom is essential to the pursuit of knowledge which can lead to the development of new ideas, including some that challenge our assumptions. Scholars must be free to research, teach and publish without fear of censorship or reprisal. It is reasonable to think that these assaults on academic freedom at Texas A&M will prompt some talented professors to think twice about accepting offers to join the faculty.

Robert Post, a constitutional law professor and former dean of the Yale Law School who has written several books on academic freedom, said politics and academia are distinctly separate pursuits. “We don’t take a vote to determine if nicotine causes cancer,” Post said.

“That these judgements would be made on political grounds as opposed to academic grounds is the most paradigmatic violation of academic freedom that is possible to imagine,” he told the Editorial Board. “Knowledge does not advance if politics controls it, one way or the other.”

Should political interference in Texas academia be allowed to continue, our universities will deteriorate. It’s up to all Texans to ensure that doesn’t happen by speaking out against these attacks. The Texas public university system is among the best in the world; we can’t allow it to be compromised by the narrow agendas of petty, meddling politicians and their allies in high places.

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