By Kate McGee and James Barragán, The Texas Tribune
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 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.”
The text message was signed “jsharp.”
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 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.
In an email obtained by The Texas Tribune through a public records request, Alonzo told Self the investigation had been kicked off by a student “who has ties to Texas A&M Leadership.”
The Texas A&M system confirmed the series of phone calls and text messages that led to Alonzo’s investigation was kicked off by Texas Land Commissioner Dawn Buckingham, a graduate of UTMB’s medical school. The Tribune confirmed her daughter, a first-year medical student at the time, attended Alonzo’s lecture. Buckingham served six years in the Texas Senate with Patrick, who endorsed her run for land commissioner last year, and she recently attended Sharp’s wedding in May.
Buckingham declined to comment.
A few hours after Texas A&M started looking into the complaint, course leaders at UTMB sent an email to students in the class saying Alonzo’s comments “about Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick and his role in the opioid crisis” did not represent the opinion of the university.
The email also included a “formal censure” of Alonzo, although it did not specify what she said that was offensive.
Neither UTMB nor Texas A&M would confirm what Alonzo said that prompted such a reaction, and UTMB students interviewed by the Tribune recalled a vague reference to Patrick’s office but nothing specific.
UTMB declined to comment for this story, and Alonzo declined to be interviewed.
Ultimately Texas A&M allowed Alonzo to keep her job after an internal investigation could not confirm any wrongdoing.
In a statement, Texas A&M University System spokesperson Laylan Copelin said Sharp’s text to Patrick was a “typical update,” saying it is not unusual for the chancellor to “keep elected officials informed when something at Texas A&M might interest them.”
“It is not unusual to respond to any state official who has concerns about anything occurring at the Texas A&M System,” said Copelin, who said the system followed standard procedure to look into the claim.
Patrick did not respond to a request for comment.
Adam Steinbaugh, an attorney with the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, a nonprofit legal group focused on protecting free speech on college campuses, said “it would be highly inappropriate for a university to conduct an investigation if a faculty member says something critical of a state leader or a government official.”
“That is, I think, a misuse of institutional resources, and it’s one that will have a chilling effect and that has a chilling effect even if you wind up clearing the professor,” Steinbaugh said.
A day after the complaint about Alonzo’s talk, Marcia Ory, a professor at Texas A&M Health and co-chair of the university’s Opioid Task Force with Alonzo, warned about the long-term consequences.
“The incident in Galveston yesterday is probably an indicator of how sensitive and politically charged this topic is and the need to tread lightly and be aware that anything can be taken out of context,” Ory wrote in an email to Jon Mogford, vice president of Texas A&M Health.
“It’s a shame because all we want is to make people aware of harm-reduction strategies that can save lives, especially among youth and young adults who are especially vulnerable these days,” wrote Ory, who did not respond to a request for comment.
An expert with a solid reputation
Alonzo has spent more than two decades as a pharmacist in Japan, Missouri and elsewhere, and has taught college students in Texas for more than a decade. She now teaches at Texas A&M while working as an ambulatory care pharmacy director at a free health clinic in Bryan.
She has helped bring millions of federal research dollars to the university, and last year Texas A&M’s pharmacy school named her the early career researcher of the year.
One of Alonzo’s recent projects focuses on training people to use Narcan, a nasal spray that reverses opioid effects and can save lives in overdose cases. She’s also advised state leaders on other public policies that could improve the fight against opioid overdoses.
Fentanyl, a synthetic opioid often illegally manufactured by Mexican drug cartels, is a growing problem. Between 2019 and 2021, overdose deaths involving fentanyl in the state rose nearly 400%.
This year, Gov. Greg Abbott declared cracking down on fentanyl as one of his seven priority issues for the legislative session.
Lawmakers allocated $18 million over the next two years toward providing naloxone, an opioid-reversing drug, to police, schools and community organizations on the front lines of the epidemic. To improve the government’s response to overdose spikes, they also passed laws requiring police and other public entities to report overdoses to a public health agency.
But instead of backing other recommended strategies to reduce overdose deaths, such as legalizing test strips that can detect the presence of fentanyl in other drugs, lawmakers focused on a more punitive approach, approving laws that increase criminal penalties for providing fentanyl that leads to an overdose death.
Public health experts like Alonzo have largely supported harm-reduction efforts rather than increasing punishments for drug users. As the crisis intensified, Alonzo often received urgent emails from Texas school districts and law enforcement agencies eager for training and naloxone kits. In the past, she estimated she had given away more than $4.5 million worth of naloxone through her training sessions.
Statement of formal censure
Self, the professor at UTMB, scheduled Alonzo to give the lecture to the first-year medical students months in advance.
“I can’t tell you enough how much the students value this presentation,” Self wrote in October, according to emails obtained through an open records request. “I get feedback all the time from them telling me how important they view this talk. They’ll come up to me even months later to tell me.”
On March 7, the two started the day with breakfast at the laid-back Mosquito Cafe in Galveston before heading to the lecture, which was mandatory for students to attend.
The lecture was not recorded, but according to presentation slides obtained by the Tribune through an open records request, Alonzo gave students a broad overview of the opioid crisis and the science behind opioids. She walked them through how to prevent opioid deaths, how to recognize an overdose and how to administer naloxone. She even touched on what to do if a police dog was exposed to fentanyl.
The slides show that Alonzo discussed how a lack of infrastructure limits the state’s ability to respond to the crisis, noting that many Texas counties lack a medical examiner; reporting on opioid deaths by emergency rooms is infrequent; and many law enforcement agencies and local health departments don’t track opioid deaths.
This means the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention considers Texas a nonreporter when it comes to opioid data, which makes it more difficult for researchers to receive grants to tackle the issue. (Alonzo gave her presentation before the Legislature passed new reporting laws this year.)
The lecture ended around noon. Afterward, students gathered at the front of the class to grab free naloxone kits provided by Alonzo. Some stuck around to ask Alonzo questions.
The course’s instructors gave no indication anything had gone awry.
Alonzo got in her car and started her two-and-a-half-hour journey home.
At 4:22 p.m., as Alonzo was learning that a controversy was brewing, a course coordinator sent an email to the entire class distancing UTMB from comments Alonzo allegedly made about Patrick. The subject line read, “STATEMENT OF FORMAL CENSURE.”
“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 asked then-A&M President M. Katherine Banks to investigate Alonzo’s comments.
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.
This article was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.
Sign up for The Brief, The Texas Tribune’s daily newsletter that keeps readers up to speed on the most essential Texas news.
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.