Texas A&M suspended professor accused of criticizing Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick in lecture
The professor, an expert on the opioids crisis, was placed on paid administrative leave and investigated, raising questions about the extent of political interference in higher education, particularly in health-related matters.
Joy Alonzo, a respected opioid expert, was in a panic.
The Texas A&M University professor had just returned home from giving a routine lecture on the opioid crisis at the University of Texas Medical Branch in March when she learned a student had accused her of disparaging Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick during the talk.
In the few hours it took to drive from Galveston, the complaint had made its way to her supervisors, and Alonzo’s job was suddenly at risk.
“I am in a ton of trouble. Please call me!” she wrote to Chandler Self, the UTMB professor who invited her to speak.
Alonzo was right to be afraid. Not only were her supervisors involved, but so was Chancellor John Sharp, a former state comptroller who now holds the highest-ranking position in the Texas A&M University System, which includes 11 public universities and 153,000 students. And Sharp was communicating directly with the lieutenant governor’s office about the incident, promising swift action.
Less than two hours after the lecture ended, Patrick’s chief of staff had sent Sharp a link to Alonzo’s professional bio.
Shortly after, Sharp sent a text directly to the lieutenant governor: “Joy Alonzo has been placed on administrative leave pending investigation re firing her. shud [sic] be finished by end of week.”
For free speech advocates, health experts and students, Texas A&M’s investigation of Alonzo was a shocking demonstration of how quickly university leaders allow politicians to interfere in classroom discussions on topics in which they are not experts — and another example of increasing political involvement from state leaders in how Texas universities are managed.
The revelation comes as Texas A&M is reeling over concerns that the university allowed politically motivated outsiders to derail the hiring of Kathleen O. McElroy, a Black journalism professor at the University of Texas at Austin, to revive the journalism school at Texas A&M. The subsequent outcry over how Texas A&M handled the situation prompted the university president to resign last week, and the interim dean of arts and sciences stepped down from that role but will remain a professor.