Texas university president resigns in latest US race-related row

Race, education and inclusivity programmes have become the latest fronts in the ‘culture wars’.

Higher education
Demonstrators protest against a bill that would limit diversity, equity and inclusion programmes in public higher education in Columbus, Ohio [File: Samantha Hendrickson/The Associated Press]

The president of Texas A&M University has resigned her position after a public row over the hiring of a prominent Black professor to kick-start the school’s journalism programme.

The announcement on Friday represents the latest turn in what has emerged as a prominent conservative target in the so-called US “culture wars”: race and inclusivity programmes in schools and universities.

Katherine Banks, the president of the public Texas university, said in her resignation letter that “negative press has become a distraction”, according to The Associated Press news agency.

Banks had been under fire for how her administration handled the hiring of Kathleen McElroy, a former New York Times editor tapped to restart the 70,000-student university’s journalism programme.

McElroy’s hire was met with opposition due to her work on promoting race and diversity programmes in newsrooms, although she was not being hired in that capacity at the university. The New York Times reported those opposed included a conservative alumni group.

Amid the backlash, McElroy told the Texas Tribune that the employment offer made by the university had changed, despite officials initially lauding her hire at a preliminary signing ceremony.

What started as a tenured position shrank to a five-year untenured contract, McElroy said. The offer finally dwindled to a one-year contract, under which she could be fired at any time.

The final offer, she told the newspaper, “really makes it clear that they don’t want me there”.

Outrage from the school’s faculty soon followed with the speaker of the school’s faculty senate decrying in a letter to Banks the “appearance of outside influence in the hiring and promotion of faculty”.

McElroy eventually opted not to take the deal.

Latest culture war

The imbroglio is emblematic of the charged atmosphere surrounding race and education in the US, which has been made a central issue in Republican-dominated state legislatures across the country.

It comes after Texas’s Republican governor, Greg Abbott, signed a bill in June that dismantles diversity, equity and inclusion programmes and training at public universities. That law is set to go into effect in January and has sent schools scrambling to comply.

According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, 40 bills targeting aspects of those diversity and inclusivity programmes have been introduced in state legislatures so far in 2023. Seven have become law in five states: Texas, Florida, North Carolina, Tennessee and North Dakota.

Topics related to race and education have also become a central issues for many Republican candidates ahead of the 2024 presidential election.

In June, several top candidates — including former President Donald Trump, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and former US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley — spoke at the Moms for Liberty conference.

The group, which has grown rapidly in the two year since its founding, aims to transform school curriculums that deal with sexual orientation and gender identity, while opposing some diversity and inclusion initiatives.

Moms for Liberty and many prominent Republicans have also taken aim at how issues of race are taught in US education.

On Thursday, the Florida Board of Education approved new guidelines for the teaching of Black American history, stoking outrage.

The guidance for middle school students said instruction should include “how slaves developed skills which, in some instances, could be applied for their personal benefit”.

The guidelines also said instruction on racism-fuelled massacres should include “acts of violence perpetrated against and by African Americans”.

Among the events cited were the Ocoee massacre in 1920 in Florida, in which a white mob killed dozens of Black people on election day, and the 1921 Tulsa race massacre, in which a white mob destroyed a massive portion of a wealthy Black neighborhood in Oklahoma.

In a tweet, Martin Luther King III, the eldest son of civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jr, called the guidance “heinous”.

Source: Al Jazeera