His name is Joe Weber, and he is a retired Marine Corps general. This appointment by President Elsa Murano, which was approved by the Board of Regents earlier today, reflects Perry’s penchant for filling high-ranking administrative positions at A&M with his friends and cronies. That Perry wanted to bring Weber to A&M has been common knowledge for months on campus. After the Regents disregarded the work of the official search committee last year, I was told that there was a period during which the regents, who took over the search, interviewed “the generals,” a category that included Weber.
President Murano issued a statement yesterday about Weber’s appointment which I find very revealing. This is an excerpt:
Last month, with the assistance of the Division of Student Affairs, I hosted a couple of focus groups with students to get their perspective on the qualities they would like to see in the next Vice President. Over and over again, these students expressed the desire for someone who would be approachable and down-to-earth, inclusive of all students, passionate about his or her job, able to communicate and innovate, and exhibit tremendous care for students, while serving as a staunch advocate and champion for their best interests. And foremost, the next Vice President must have an in-depth understanding and great appreciation for Texas A&M’s values and traditions.
Frankly, these comments were not surprising to me, for they are qualities that I also value in the Vice President for Student Affairs. These are similar themes that I have heard from various other groups of students and former students over the past eight months and in my previous role as a Vice Chancellor and Dean. It is evident that Texas A&M needs an effective administrator in this position who works across the various divisions and academic units on our campus, and manages a diverse portfolio of student services in an efficient and fiscally responsible manner.
Since my appointment as President in January, I have also been approached by students, both current and former, who are concerned about the slow decline in the practice of some of Texas A&M’s most valued and recognizable traditions. I have observed this decline for myself and it also concerns me.
A decline in traditions? What decline? Fish camp (A&M’s highly successful orientation program) is the same as ever. The Corps of Cadets still sets the tone for the campus. Muster? Silver Taps? These remain the same. Go to a football game: the same yells, the same strange gestures, the same band music, the same fan reaction. The remarkable thing about Texas A&M is how little it has changed.
There are two exceptions to the steadfastness of traditions at Aggieland. One, everybody agrees, is that people don’t greet each other with “Howdy” the way they used to. I don’t think Joe Weber was hired to get people to say “Howdy.”
Now let’s cut to the chase. The ONLY tradition that is different today is Bonfire. The last two presidents of A&M, Ray Bowen and Robert Gates, recognized that Bonfire was a tradition that had gone wrong. A&M administrators delegated total responsibility to students. The student leaders, known as Redpots (for the color of their hard hats) answered to no one. They changed the design of the stack to the layered “wedding cake” that led to the deaths of twelve people in 1999. I interviewed an engineering professor who tried to warn the Redpots, and they patronized him. The same professor brought his concerns to a previous vice-president of student affairs and was told that the students were in charge. Over the years the Redpots violated the longstanding practice that freshmen should not be allowed on the stack. They likewise violated height restrictions. They acted like demigods; I read a report in which a female student complained that she had been knocked to the ground by a Redpot because she had unwittingly set foot in the area reserved for Redpots.
All Aggies want A&M to be the school that they remember, and the school that Rick Perry remembers was a school where Bonfire brought people together. On weekends there was Cut: trips into the countryside to saw down the logs. During the week the stack was constructed. Students worked twelve hour shifts. The Corps supervised the construction in Perry’s day; once A&M began to grow, though, it became an activity for anyone who wanted to participate.
There are two things wrong with bringing back Bonfire. One is that it is incompatible with academics. Students miss class, or stay up all night, and they fall behind. The second is that it is far too dangerous an activity to be entrusted to students. Ray Bowen established a protocol that if it were to come back to campus, it would have to be professionally designed and supervised, using a permanent superstructure. One might add a third issue: If it comes back to campus, who is going to insure A&M against liability for negligence?
I hope I’m wrong about this. I hope Perry realizes that safety is more important than traditions. But I wouldn’t count on it.