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Conservative Political Correctness Is Running Amok on Campus
A brief glimpse at goings-on in Texas and Florida
Inside Higher Ed’s Josh Moody has quite the story on the decline and fall of Texas A&M president Kathy Banks. Readers might be familiar with Banks’ resignation last month after a badly botched attempt to hire Dr. Kathleen McElroy to reboot A&M’s journalism program. The tl;dr version of that affair is that members of A&M’s board objected to McElroy: a) being an African-American woman; and b) having worked for the New York Times.
When Banks stepped down, she claimed to have played little role in the failed process and explained, “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.” A&M’s general counsel launched an investigation into the failed hire. Moody’s story reveals some very interesting findings from that report:
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By July 21, the faculty’s concerns had been validated in a report from the Texas A&M system’s Office of the General Counsel that showed Banks’s direct involvement in the McElroy case, with the president’s fingerprints all over the decision to yank the offer and replace it with a nontenured option. The report spelled out, in clear facts, that Banks—under pressure from legislators and regents to drive Texas A&M in a conservative direction—was the architect of the failed hire….
At the campus level, the story can be taken as one of hubris and dramatic missteps, but zooming out, the Banks tenure reflects the perils of the modern presidency amid increasing politicization of higher education, especially in red states where skepticism of academe is high.
Moody supports his thesis statement with a cornucopia of interviews and quotes. Part of the story is Banks using an outside consulting firm to make recommendations she already wanted to implement, “as a way to put forth her own ideas and let MGT Consulting take the heat when those proposals were met with resistance.” As someone who is all too familiar with the overhyped role of management consultants in the Ideas Industry, that dynamic sounds very familiar.
A leader using outside consultants as a way to burnish credibility and bypass institutional roadblocks is sketchy. Even more concerning in Moody’s report is the way-too hands-on role that A&M’s Board of Trustees played in the hiring process:
Emails and text messages between university officials, including Banks, indicate that McElroy’s past as a Black woman who worked for The New York Times and researched diversity, equity and inclusion issues was a potential headache for Texas A&M. Banks stressed that it was important to slow-walk the hire until after the end of the legislative session in May, and [interim dean of the College of Arts and Sciences José Luis] Bermúdez told a subordinate that it would be “poor optics” to hire McElroy with DEI under fire in Texas….
Text messages between regents, released as part of Texas A&M’s internal review, demonstrated that board members also seemed to be exerting influence over the departmental hiring decision.
“Please tell me this isn’t true,” [Board of Regents member Jay] Graham texted Banks and system chancellor John Sharp about plans to hire McElroy. “But since it’s not April Fools Day, I assume it is. I thought the purpose of us starting a journalism program was to get high-quality Aggie journalist[s] with conservative values into the market. This won’t happen with someone like this leading the department.”
Another regent, Mike Hernandez, questioned McElroy’s résumé—calling The New York Times “biased and progressive leaning” and suggested tenure approval would be “a difficult sell.”
I may be just a small-town academic but I reckon that the purpose of starting a journalism program at A&M would be to produce high-quality Aggie journalists, period. Seems to me that the faculty, students, voters, and taxpayers of Texas are well within their rights to demand that public universities focus on rigorous work over the kind of partisan polemics that Graham wants to produce.
By the way, that last sentence is a rough paraphrase of Christopher Rufo’s hypocritical proclamations on this topic. To repeat a theme: when conservative activists say they want to root out ideology in universities, they are lying. What they really want is to impose their own preferred ideological litmus tests — their own forms of political correctness, if you will — when it comes to faculty hiring. Rufo’s ideological jihad against New College is Exhibit A of this phenomenon. According to the Tampa Bay Times’ Ian Hodgson, “more than one-third of New College of Florida faculty will not be returning in the fall,” in no small part due to Rufo et al’s capricious and chaotic management style.
The fallout is hardly limited to New College. There is mounting evidence (see here and here for recent examples beyond New College) that Florida Governor Ron DeSantis’ self-proclaimed War on Woke is producing immense collateral damage in the form of of a brain drain. When philosophers are leaving tenured jobs, you know it’s a hostile work environment.
I have acknowledged previously that there are elements of campus culture that represent a caricature of progressive DEI policies being bureaucratized badly. And goodness knows state universities have been on quite the spending binge as of late.1 This A&M story, however, is another data point bolstering Henry Farrell’s suggested hierarchy of influence in universities. Between campus activists and DEI officials trying to implement their political ideology and politically appointed trustees and administrators trying to implement their political ideology, the trustees and administrators will exercise more control every day of the week and twice on Sundays.
Florida and Texas have profited immensely from having top-tier public university systems. This new push for conservative political correctness across the board is a surefire way to tarnish that reputation for a good long while. Unless and until conservative politicians and conservative trustees learn when to leave their political ideologies behind, they will wing up being responsible for overseeing Stupid State, Dumbass A&M, and the University of Idiots.
Though it should be noted that state legislatures scaled back their funding at the same time.