Posted on September 7, 2023

Behind the Lines of Texas A&M’s Diversity War

Jack Stripling, Washington Post, September 6, 2023

The July email to Texas A&M University instructors caught many by surprise.

The university would drop a required lesson on “respect & inclusion” from a semester-long program open to all first-year students, according to the email. This was necessary, an official wrote, in light of a new state law that bans, in part, mandatory diversity training. In its place, A&M would add a lesson on mental health.

The email from the university’s first-year experience office was met with faculty pushback. Within hours, A&M walked back its directive; a vice provost called it “premature” as officials sought more legal guidance about the law. Weeks later, A&M sent another message, confirming that, after all, the university would nix the lesson as a requirement for the curriculum known as “Hullabaloo U.”

Confusion over the fate of a single lesson reflects broader anxiety among many faculty and students about what the new Texas law banning activities related to diversity, equity and inclusion — commonly abbreviated as DEI — will mean for what is taught, who is hired and how universities support students. The closure of campus DEI offices in the state, a central feature of the measure, is already underway. At least one school has also shuttered an LGBTQ resource center.

And despite assurance that the restrictions won’t infringe on the classroom, some faculty say they remain concerned about what may be on the horizon. Those fears are particularly acute at A&M, where the hiring of a new journalism director went off the rails this summer amid political concerns about her past work on diversity issues.


The tensions in Texas come as the tools many colleges have historically used to improve diversity are increasingly verboten. The Supreme Court this summer struck down race-based affirmative action, and lawmakers in several states such as Florida are targeting programs and practices related to DEI. Across college campuses, professors are hearing the message that work related to diversity could invite political or legal backlash.


Like many universities, the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police in 2020 prompted A&M to do some soul-searching about its own traditions. Who was being left out, the university asked? How might the experiences of Black students, who comprise just 3 percent of the student body, differ from those of their White counterparts? And what could A&M do to recruit more diverse faculty?

In a pledge of its commitment to these issues, the university’s Board of Regents agreed to spend $24.75 million to “enhance diversity, equity, and inclusion.”

Today, however, several DEI-related programs have either been shut down or are being phased out. The diversity office, which must be shuttered by Jan. 1 in accordance with the new law, closed Friday. A cabinet-level diversity position has been eliminated. A recruitment program designed to attract early-career faculty with a demonstrated scholarly focus on DEI won’t continue after this fall.

This much is known. But university officials say that they are still awaiting legal guidance on which other initiatives will need to be scrapped as a result of the new law that began as Senate Bill 17. The university system’s lawyers are conducting an audit of all activities that might run afoul of the restrictions. (In response to a public records request from The Washington Post, the campus said Tuesday it would withhold records of its response to the audit, citing an exemption for “confidential information.”)

Senate Bill 17 specifically exempts research and teaching, but professors engaged in diversity-related scholarship say they are particularly concerned. Many people at the university say they fear they’ll be politically targeted for even talking about diversity issues. More than 40 people involved in diversity work at Texas A&M either did not respond to interview requests from The Post, declined to speak, or would only talk on background.

There is a pervasive sense that outside influence — either from politicians or conservative alums — is interfering with the work of the university and threatening academic freedom. Those fears were heightened in July, when the Texas Tribune reported that Kathleen McElroy, a tenured professor of journalism at the University of Texas at Austin, had turned down an offer to lead A&M’s journalism program. The university, which had initially offered McElroy a tenured role — contingent upon the regents’ approval — had reduced its offer to a one-year contract amid a conservative backlash. McElroy, an African American alum of A&M and a former New York Times editor, said she was told that “DEI hysteria” had complicated her appointment.


Texas A&M has agreed to pay McElroy $1 million as part of a legal settlement. Reeling from controversy, the university swiftly tapped as interim president Mark A. Welsh III, a retired four-star Air Force general who most recently served as dean of the university’s Bush School of Government and Public Service.

Citing the university’s internal review of the McElroy affair, Welsh told The Post that the case was about a flawed hiring process — not race. But Welsh knows what a lot of people think: “This was a Black professor who Texas A&M decided they didn’t want.”


The new Texas law has similarities with one recently passed in Florida, where public colleges are prohibited from spending state or federal money on DEI efforts.

In recent months, faculty at Texas A&M say they’ve observed what looks like the quiet erasure of anything diversity-related. A webpage for the university’s Department of Multicultural Services has been altered, removing from its description the words “belonging” and “inclusive,” archived pages show. In March, without explanation, the department postponed a conference on race.


Annie McGowan, who ran A&M’s office for diversity from 2020 until its recent closure, said she has seen firsthand the university’s efforts to censor politically sensitive content. In February, Texas A&M’s marketing and communications division informed McGowan that it had taken down a diversity office webpage that contained a glossary of DEI-related terms. The list included the term “Christian privilege,” which had captured the attention of Campus Reform, a conservative watchdog website.


In recent weeks, McGowan wound down the diversity office. With the help of student workers, she moved her belongings from the administration building, where the president and other top campus officials work, to the business school, where McGowan remains a professor. She said she will continue to mentor students who need it.


Of the 10 people who worked with McGowan, eight have found new positions or returned to faculty roles at A&M. Two have left for other universities, McGowan said.


Idia Thurston, who until recently was an associate professor of psychology and public health at A&M, said she heard the same message from the university; so, she left.

Thurston joined the faculty at A&M in 2019. She was eager to be a part of a research cluster that brought together psychology faculty whose work is related to diversity. Over time, however, Thurston saw diversity-related programs die on the vine, including one she helped to develop that provided training on implicit bias in promotion and retention. The program was phased out last November, officials confirmed.

As the political rhetoric against DEI intensified in Texas over the past year, Thurston said she grew concerned that she might be restricted in her scholarship, which focuses in part on racial inequities and disparities in health care. The professor said she isn’t convinced that crackdowns on diversity research won’t happen, despite the law’s exemptions for that activity.

On Aug. 21, Thurston began in her new role as a professor and associate director of the Institute for Health Equity and Social Justice Research at Northeastern University {snip} Researchers like herself won’t stay at A&M, she said. {snip}