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A Texas A&M professor was suspended for allegedly criticizing lieutenant governor

Texas A&M University has come under fire for suspending and then investigating a professor who spoke critically of Texas Lieutenant Gov. Dan Patrick during a lecture on the opioid crisis last March.
Dave Einsel
/
AP
Texas A&M University has come under fire for suspending and then investigating a professor who spoke critically of Texas Lieutenant Gov. Dan Patrick during a lecture on the opioid crisis last March.

A Texas A&M University professor was suspended, investigated and ultimately cleared of any wrongdoing for allegedly criticizing Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick during a lecture about the opioid crisis. The probe has free speech advocates concerned about political influence over academia in Texas.

Joy Alonzo, a clinical assistant professor of pharmacy, nearly lost her job for a remark she made while delivering a lecture at the University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB) in Galveston in March, the Texas Tribune reported.

An investigation failed to prove the professor did anything wrong and she was allowed to keep her job. However, Kristen Shahverdian, senior manager at the freedom of expression nonprofit PEN America, said the fact that the investigation ever took place is a problem.

"This blatantly inappropriate investigation is a frightening example of how precarious academic freedom is becoming on Texas campuses," Shahverdian said in a statement. "For Alonzo to be investigated and censured, seemingly at the request of the lieutenant governor, is a frightening encroachment on her academic freedom that sends a chilling effect across all of higher education in the state."

A student with ties to the lieutenant governor allegedly complained about the lecture

A first-year medical student filed a complaint against Alonzo for speaking unfavorably about Patrick during or immediately after the lecture on the opioid crisis, and within hours the lieutenant governor's office was discussing the matter with John Sharp, chancellor of the Texas A&M System.

The Texas Tribune reported that Sharp sent said the following text directly to Patrick:

"Joy Alonzo has been placed on administrative leave pending investigation re firing her. shud [sic] be finished by end of week."

According to the Tribune, phone calls and texts from Texas Land Commissioner Dawn Buckingham, a graduate of UTMB's medical school with close ties to Patrick, prompted the investigation. Buckingham served six years alongside Patrick in the state Senate from 2017 to 2023, was then elected as land commissioner with Patrick's backing, and attended Sharp's wedding in May. The Tribune reported that Buckingham's daughter, then a first-year medical student, attended Alonzo's lecture.

Buckingham said in a statement to NPR that she takes the fentanyl crisis in Texas personally, and that Patrick and the Texas Senate are working to secure the southern border.

"With the number of fentanyl deaths skyrocketing in Texas, leaders in academia, the media, and elected office must focus on meaningful policy solutions, not destructive blame games, disgusting character assassination, and political sniping that does nothing to save lives," Buckingham said.

As the complaint made its way from Buckingham to Patrick and then to the Texas A&M University System, the Tribune reported, UTMB leaders sent an email to the students who attended Alonzo's lecture stating that the professor's comments about the lieutenant governor didn't reflect the opinion of the university.

The university then issued a formal censure, a statement disapproving of Alonzo's words to the class, the Tribune reported.

It's unclear what Alonzo said to upset people in political power

According to the PEN America press release and the Texas Tribune's reporting, the formal censure letter failed to specify what part of Alonzo's lecture, which wasn't recorded, was problematic. Shahverdian said the threat of educators being censured or fired at the whim of politicians is a "frightening encroachment" on academic freedoms.

"This is worsened by the fact that it is unclear what exactly it is that Alonzo said to cause such offense," Shahverdian said, "leaving professors to self-censor lest they offend someone in a position of political power."

Laylan Copelin, Texas A&M vice chancellor for marketing and communications, said in a statement to NPR that not looking into the UTMB censure would have been irresponsible of the university, and that, "It is not unusual to respond to any state official who has concerns about anything occurring at the Texas A&M System."

Copelin went on to say that, "Dr. Joy Alonzo said her remarks were mischaracterized and taken out of context and she was returned to her duties. She added that she had no issue with how the university handled the situation."

The news of the investigation into Alonzo spurred First Amendment attorney Alex Morey, who serves as the director of campus rights advocacy at the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE), to call on Texas A&M to publicly renounce its censure.

The foundation said in a letter to Texas A&Mthat the censure of Alonzo for her alleged critical comments of Patrick erodes the peoples' trust in public universities.

"Texas A&M's punishment of Alonzo to please powerful political forces is a stunning abdication of its constitutional obligations, deeply chilling faculty and student expression on campus," the letter reads. "... Because Texas A&M has violated that trust, and the law, it must publicly renounce its investigation into Alonzo for her protected expression and recommit to protecting faculty's expressive freedoms moving forward."

A&M was already under fire for caving to political pressure

The censure of Alonzo is the second time this month that the university has made national headlines for caving to outside pressures.

Texas A&M had recruited Kathleen McElroy, a distinguished journalist and A&M alum, to revive and then lead the university's journalism program in June. McElroy had served as a professor and director of the School of Journalism and Media at the University of Texas at Austin before accepting the offer at A&M, according to auniversity news release from June.

However, McElroy never made it to College Station. She decided to stay in Austin after her contract was rescinded and reworded three times, sliding from a tenured professor position to a one-year contract where she could be fired at will, the Tribune reported.

According to the Tribune, McElroy's offer was reduced after the university received backlash from conservative constituents who had a problem with the Black journalist's past employment by The New York Times and her work on race and diversity in media.

The fallout resulted in the resignation of Texas A&M President Katherine Banks last Thursday, according to a university press release, which also said the Faculty Senate is creating a fact-finding committee to investigate the "mishandling" of the hiring of McElroy.

Banks denied knowing about the offer letter changes, but took responsibility for how things unfolded, according to the A&M release.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Dustin Jones is a reporter for NPR's digital news desk. He mainly covers breaking news, but enjoys working on long-form narrative pieces.