Keep Politics Out of Academic Hiring
Right-wing pressure jeopardized the employment of two teachers at Texas A&M. It's a major blow to free speech.
Joy Alonzo wants to stop fentanyl overdose deaths. As a professor at the Texas A&M College of Pharmacy and co-chair of the school’s Opioid Task Force, she advocates for her views inside and outside of class.
“Have a naloxone rescue kit and know how to use it,” she writes on the website Texas Against Fentanyl. Her words appear just below a photo carousel of teens and young adults who died after the Xanax or Oxycodone or Adderall they thought they were buying turned out to be laced with lethal levels of fentanyl.
Alonzo also says that while naloxone can reverse overdoses, another product—fentanyl test strips—can help prevent them altogether. But fentanyl test strips are illegal in Texas. She has criticized the legislation, as well as the lawmakers who support this and similar policies.
Doing so in one of her classes earlier this semester almost cost Alonzo her job.
A revealing report from The Texas Tribune late last month describes how the university quickly took steps to discipline Alonzo after Dan Patrick, the state’s lieutenant governor, learned she was criticizing him in class. According to the paper’s timeline, which includes allegations supported by documentation acquired through open records requests, events unfolded like this: The daughter of a close Patrick political ally was a student in Alonzo’s presentation; her mother, the Texas Land Commissioner, later called Patrick; Patrick’s office called university higher-ups; within hours, a university official texted Patrick directly:
“Joy Alonzo has been placed on administrative leave pending investigation re firing her. shud [sic] be finished by end of week.”
We don’t know exactly what Patrick or his office said to A&M, but investigating Joy Alonzo was a decision A&M made, and it appears they were all too happy to roll over at the mere whiff of a politician’s disapproval.
That absolutely violates the First Amendment. Decades of well-settled law protects the right of faculty to speak freely on matters of public concern, to exercise academic freedom without government interference, and to criticize laws and lawmakers impacting the faculty member’s field. In fact, criticizing public figures is core political speech—the type of speech where, in the words of the Supreme Court, the “First Amendment’s protection is at its zenith.”
This is what the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE), the nonpartisan nonprofit where I lead our Campus Rights Advocacy team, told A&M the day the Alonzo story broke. With every passing day, faculty remained unsure if they could exercise these important rights. Would they be censured and investigated like Alonzo? Acting President Mark Welsh needed to come out hard on this. A sentence would do. He just needed to agree the university would meet its basic legal obligations.
A few days later, a tired-sounding woman, calling on behalf of Welsh, asked for more time. It was on his very long list, she said—the subtext being, it was not at the top.
It would take another week for A&M to publicly recommit to free speech and academic freedom.
One can’t discuss Joy Alonzo without also discussing Kathleen McElroy.
McElroy was at the center of a free speech controversy that arose just a couple of weeks earlier at Texas A&M University, garnering perhaps even more publicity. McElroy is a former New York Times journalist who studies race and supports diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) initiatives. A&M offered to hire her for a tenured role leading A&M’s journalism program. She accepted and the hire was met with much fanfare, including a signing ceremony.
But alumni reportedly complained that McElroy was too progressive, and her offer began to change. The deal disintegrated from a premium tenured post to a one-year contract of the sort adjunct professors usually get. Once again, the Tribune got receipts, showing that then-President Katherine Banks was “heavily involved” in the university’s decision to spike the hire. As the deal fell apart, one administrator reportedly revealed a concern conservative critics had about McElroy: “You’re a black woman who worked at The New York Times.”
Banks had presided over other free speech and associational rights controversies that included attempting to strong-arm the student paper and canceling a student-run drag show. And new reporting suggests she may have lied to downplay the extent of her involvement in reneging on the McElroy deal. Banks resigned in the wake of the scandal, and A&M has agreed to pay McElroy a $1M settlement.
Taken together, these two Texas-sized controversies are a testament to what happens when universities bend over backwards to please powerful outside actors. They raise the question of how lawmakers, alumni, and donors nationwide are using their power and influence to dictate the ideas taught in college classrooms, particularly in red states.
Of course, there is far from an ideological monopoly on censoring disfavored speech. Slightly more than half of documented scholar sanction attempts come from the left of the speaker. Progressive students routinely report their peers and faculty for so-called “hate speech.” Predominantly left-leaning administrators, in many cases, are all too happy to punish “offensive” or “discriminatory” speech or, recently, to force faculty to pledge allegiance to highly specific versions of DEI. Controversial not-progressive-enough speakers are also frequent targets.
But while this sort of pressure is the hallmark of the left, political meddling is the trending censorship tactic of the right.
Unlike the overt personal pressure in the Texas A&M cases, a lot of recent interference attempts have been legislative. Florida’s Stop W.O.K.E Act aims to ban broad swaths of teaching about race and gender from the state’s college classrooms. The law’s proponents argue that teaching Critical Race Theory constitutes “state-sanctioned racism” against white people. (Censoring “hateful” or “racist” speech was once the sole property of American progressives.)
Florida is so far the only state that has successfully passed a collegiate curricular ban, and there is currently a preliminary injunction in place against it. But curricular bans are still pending in some states, such as Ohio. Of course, Republican legislators in states like South Dakota, Tennessee, and even Florida have also enacted many excellent speech-protective bills over the years—but the fact remains that many exhibit a troubling blindspot when it comes to tackling perceived abuses perpetrated in the name of DEI.
Make no mistake: the kind of ultra-polarized, vindictive political wheeler-dealing that pollutes so much of our national landscape has no place in academia. Our public universities are society’s knowledge factories, testing ideas and mining facts using objective scientific principles. Student and faculty autonomy is key to fulfilling that educational mission, and must always be top of the list. Higher education ceases to function under conditions that severely limit the words, ideas, and views up for consideration—no matter what you think of the underlying ideas themselves, and no matter whether the threat comes from the left or the right.
To the extent that anti-DEI bills limit which ideas can be taught in our college classrooms, they’re just as troubling as, say, a left-wing administrator forcing a conservative scholar to promote DEI against her will. They’re two sides of the same coin.
And when it comes from the sort of pressure exercised against Alonzo and McElroy at Texas A&M, it’s the responsibility of college and university administrators to stick with their principles and resist the temptation to appease the powerful. Universities need administrators who treat their position as totally apolitical, who don’t sacrifice free speech to please alumni or donors who complain, and who value student and faculty rights above keeping the optics good for local politicians.
At a minimum, stewards of our public colleges and universities must always put students and faculty first by defending academic freedom—both in private and in public. And they shouldn’t, like Texas A&M, need more time to think about it.
Alex Morey is a First Amendment attorney and journalist. She leads the Campus Rights Advocacy team at FIRE.
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