“The statements made by the guest lecturer do not represent the opinion or position of the University of Texas Medical Branch, nor are they considered as core curriculum content for this course,” the email said.

“UTMB does not support or condone these comments. We take these matters very seriously and wish to express our disapproval of the comment and apologize for harm it may have caused for members of our community,” the email continued. “We hereby issue a formal censure of these statements and will take steps to ensure that such behavior does not happen in the future.”

The email did not specify what comments had led to the censure.

The trouble had started several hours earlier when Buckingham called Patrick to alert him that an A&M professor had made negative comments about him during a guest lecture at UTMB, said Copelin, the A&M system spokesperson. Buckingham then called Jenny Jones, the university system’s vice chancellor for governmental relations.

Copelin said a text message had alerted Buckingham of the comments, but he did not provide information on who sent the text message.

Patrick then called Sharp and Kevin Eltife, the chair of the University of Texas System’s board, Copelin said. The call between Sharp and Patrick was short. Patrick’s chief of staff, Darrell Davila, followed with the text to Sharp that linked to Alonzo’s faculty page. Eltife declined to comment.

Sharp had a staff member look into the complaint and that staff member asked then-A&M President M. Katherine Banks’ office to investigate.

Copelin said Sharp’s request went through the chain of command at A&M’s Health Science Center and ended up with Kevin McGinnis, the system’s vice president and chief compliance officer.

At the same time, the government relations team alerted the Health Science Center and the pharmacy school, which are affiliated with Alonzo, Copelin said.

A&M officials received a copy of UTMB’s censure statement and reached out for more information, but UTMB did not cooperate, Copelin said.

“By the close of the day, McGinnis decided to put Alonzo on paid leave and investigate to determine what really happened,” Copelin said in a statement.

As the situation developed, A&M officials updated Patrick and his team.

At 4:43 p.m., just 15 minutes after UTMB sent its official censure letter, Jones alerted Patrick’s deputy chief of staff, Marian Wallace, that the investigation was underway.

“joy alonzo placed on administrative leave pending firing investigation this week js,” read the message from Jones obtained by the Tribune through a public records request.

Copelin said the university’s handling of the complaint against Alonzo followed standard procedure and appropriately updated the relevant lawmakers on the investigation’s progress.

“The investigation into the matter was a reasonable step to take, particularly after UTMB issued a public statement ‘censuring’ one of our faculty members,” he said. “In fact, it would have been irresponsible not to look into it.”

Texas A&M would not answer questions about what specific policy Alonzo may have violated with her comments or provide documents pertaining to the investigation, citing state law that allows a university to withhold such information if a person is cleared of wrongdoing.

The timing of the complaint came as the legislative session was heating up. Universities, including Texas A&M, were making pitches to lawmakers to devote some of the state’s multibillion-dollar surplus to fund special projects.

Alonzo’s predicament also comes as Texas universities are dealing with increasing government involvement in ostensibly independent public universities, particularly at the hand of Patrick, whom Alonzo was accused of criticizing. This year, Texas lawmakers banned diversity, equity and inclusion offices on college campuses, a priority for Patrick. These offices target underrepresented groups on campus to help them succeed, but critics accused them of pushing “woke,” left-leaning ideology on students and faculty.

Patrick also prioritized a bill that would limit certain conversations about race and gender in college classrooms. When professors at UT-Austin publicly reaffirmed their academic freedom to teach critical race theory last year, Patrick pledged to ban tenure in public universities. Ultimately, that proposal was unsuccessful, but faculty say the broad attack on higher education has made Texas a less appealing and more difficult place to work.

Students scramble to understand what happened

When students at UTMB received the email hours after the lecture, several started texting each other, trying to figure out what Alonzo had said that was so offensive.

According to one student who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation from the school, some students wondered if it was when Alonzo said that the lieutenant governor’s office was one of the reasons it’s hard for drug users to access certain care for opioid addiction or overdoses.

A second student who also asked to remain anonymous for the same reason said Alonzo made a comment that the lieutenant governor’s office had opposed policies that could have prevented opioid-related deaths, and by doing so had allowed people to die.

A third student who also spoke on the condition of anonymity said Alonzo talked about how policies, like the state’s ban on fentanyl test strips, have a direct impact on the ability to prevent opioid overdoses and deaths. A push to legalize the test strips died earlier this year in the Patrick-led Senate despite support from top Republicans, including Abbott.

All of the students interviewed said they felt Alonzo’s comments were accurate and they were not offended by anything in the presentation.

In a statement provided by Copelin, the A&M system spokesperson, Alonzo said “her remarks were mischaracterized and taken out of context,” but she did not confirm exactly what the comments were.

“She added that she had no issue with how the university handled the situation,” Copelin said.

The third student at UTMB said the email from the school was frustrating because it was unclear which comments the university found problematic.

“We’ve been left wondering exactly what it was they objected to,” the student said. “That vagueness just leads to some more self-censorship, since it’s hard to tell what is and isn’t allowed.”

Steinbaugh, an attorney with the legal nonprofit FIRE, said schools have the right to criticize an employee or guest speaker for statements they make, but issuing a formal censure sends a strong and unambiguous message.

“That is a suggestion that if you repeat this language or these criticisms, then you will be subject to disciplinary consequences that go beyond formal censure,” he said. “That is a way to really put an exclamation point on the chilling effect.”

In a statement last week to faculty who were upset about the fallout over the botched hiring of McElroy to the journalism department, Sharp expressed concern about outside influences in the hiring and promotion of faculty, saying it was “never welcome, nor invited.”

Sharp said he only participates in hiring questions over the school’s president and vice chancellors for agriculture and engineering.

“Other than that, I don’t believe it is my place to be part of the hiring process for faculty,” he wrote.

Fear of a chilling effect on life-saving information

A few hours after Alonzo reached out to Self about the trouble she was in, she finally heard back. But the tone of the email was notably different from the earlier cordial exchanges.

Self said she did not record the lecture and noted that “all further correspondence will be funneled through our Office of Education.”

Self referred a request for comment by the Tribune to UTMB’s media relations department, which declined to discuss the situation.

Meanwhile, emails obtained through an open records request show that opioid experts and advocates across the state started sending Alonzo letters of support that evening.

“I’ve never seen her to be anything other than professional, knowledgeable, and compassionate,” wrote Kathy Posey, who helped start the Montgomery County Overdose Prevention Endeavor, an opioid overdose awareness group made up of people whose family members have been addicted to opioids or died from an overdose.

Lucas Hill, a clinical associate professor of pharmacy at the University of Texas at Austin, wrote in his letter that Alonzo was not a divisive educator.

“While I was not present during her guest lecture at the University of Texas Medical Branch this morning, my interactions with Dr. Alonzo gives me great confidence that she engages learners in discussions of controversial topics with the professionalism and restraint described in established principles of academic freedom,” he wrote.

The stakes are high for professors who simultaneously work in their fields and teach, many of whom, like Alonzo, do not have tenure. And it raises concerns that medical experts working on high-stakes issues like the opioid crisis might withhold important, life-saving information out of fear of reprimand or punishment.

“When we’re dealing with basic life-saving interventions, chilling effects can have much more deep consequences,” said Aaron Ferguson, an addiction treatment expert in Austin who works with researchers at public universities to combat opioid overdoses. “People don’t feel emboldened to share basic science that could save people’s lives.”

“Some members of the audience” were offended

On March 21, two weeks after she was placed on paid leave, Alonzo received an email saying her leave had been lifted.

The following day, pharmacy school Dean George Udeani said in a memo to Alonzo that during the lecture she “related an anecdote and an interaction with a state official.”

“I understand that your comment did not assign blame. However, some members of the audience felt that your anecdote was offensive,” he wrote.

“While it is important to preserve and defend academic freedom and as such be able to discuss and present to students and the public the results of research observations and strategies, you should be mindful of how you present your views,” Udeani said.

Disclosure: Texas A&M University, Texas A&M University System, University of Texas at Austin, University of Texas System and Kathleen McElroy have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

The Texas Tribune is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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