Hullabaloo
Fri November 16, 2007 6:52 pm

I am quite amazed by the deluge of readers’ comments about my post concerning the dispute over governance and the choice of the next president at Texas A&M. Well, maybe I’m not so amazed. Aggies love that school, and they have strong opinions about everything of import that happens there. Most issues come down to a battle between “Old Aggies” and “New Aggies.” The two camps are defined not by age, but by attitude. Old Aggies value traditions above all; they want nothing so much as for A&M to be a university that promotes the ideals of character, leadership, loyalty, and service. Many Old Aggies see the academic strength of A&M as an impediment to the maintenance of the school they want A&M to be – especially the growth of liberal arts, which brings in a type of student who, they fear, might not buy into Aggie life and Aggie tradition. Old Aggies are ever-vigilant for signs of change, but the remarkable thing about A&M is how much of the “Old Army” days it has preserved even through the end of the compulsory service in the Corps and the admission of women and the tragedy that brought an end to Bonfire. New Aggies embrace change and the emphasis on academics and see no conflict between the traditions of the past and the future of A&M as a great research university. Still, it was inevitable that Old Aggies have reacted to the complaints of faculty members by saying that the faculty are intellectuals who shouldn’t have any role in governing A&M.

Readers will probably presume from my descriptions of Old and New Aggies that Rick Perry qualifies as an Old Aggie. He certainly has some Old Aggie in him, but I’ll never forget what he told me about the admission of women: “If it hadn’t been for Earl Rudder [a World War II hero and A&M’s greatest president who pressed for the decision to admit women in the mid-sixties], A&M would be The Citadel today.” Perry certainly understands the importance of higher education and academic research to the state’s future. (Don’t read that as an endorsement of his higher ed proposals.) He’s the governor, he’s a totally loyal Aggie, and he’s going to have his say about who is the next president. Including, possibly, himself. I reported, if that is the right word, about that possibility in an earlier post (“Perry for President?”, November 3):

A&M currently is being run by an interim president and an interim executive vice-president/provost. And the top three offices in the A&M System are former Perry staffers, including chancellor and former legislative buddy Mike McKinney. One version of the Perry-for-President story is that McKinney would be named to hold both offices, chancellor and president, until the regents (all of whom are Perry appointees) would appoint Perry as president.

The latest word on the fight between the regents and the faculty was an article this morning in the Bryan-College Station Eagle, in which the Perry-for-President possibility was mentioned:

Texas A&M System Board of Regents Chairman Bill Jones on Thursday said he would not discuss concerns expressed by A&M faculty members about an ongoing presidential search.

Jones also refused to answer questions about the status of the search process and would not comment on a pair of letters recently exchanged between the Board of Regents and the Faculty Senate.

Leaders within the Faculty Senate on Thursday said many professors remained in an uproar over the letters.

“This is a very hurtful and disappointing sort of turn of events,” said Doug Slack, who oversaw the presidential search committee disbanded earlier this year.

The first letter, sent Oct. 5 by Faculty Senate Speaker Angie Price, detailed concerns from faculty members that the search committee process had been abandoned, a move they said could cause significant repercussions on campus.

A Nov. 6 response issued by Jones stressed that the Board of Regents has sole discretion over the selection of the next A&M president and stated that regents were willing to accept any unintended “unfortunate consequences” related to their decision.

The response written on behalf of the Board of Regents has fueled resentment among faculty members, several professors said.

“I really don’t want to go into that,” Jones told The Eagle Thursday, explaining that he thought nothing could be gained if he or faculty members rehashed their letters. “I put my thoughts down in my letter. I guess they put their thoughts down in theirs.”

It has been roughly three months since the presidential search committee completed its findings, presented three top candidates to A&M System Chancellor Mike McKinney and then was relieved of its duties.

The 15-member committee was formed in January and charged with finding candidates to replace Robert Gates, who left his post in December to become the U.S. secretary of defense.

The three candidates were not identified, but Slack at the time described each as nationally recognized sitting presidents from varied ethnic backgrounds. Peers ranked one of them among the top five university presidents in the nation, he said.

About a month after the committee presented the candidates, the Board of Regents announced it would continue the search and possibly consider additional candidates. No formal update has been made since.

Price, a professor at Texas A&M, said she drafted the letter at the prompting of fellow faculty members. In it, she states that failing to select one of the committee’s three candidates could hurt the university’s national academic image, cause a drop in morale and fracture the system of shared governance that has been fostered in recent years.

Shared governance is a concept that calls for faculty and staff to participate in significant decisions affecting the university.

Jones responded by stating that while shared governance has its place, the Board of Regents has the ultimate responsibility for selecting a new president. The panel, he wrote, is working deliberately and carefully to find that person.

Regents strive to be inclusive and maintain high positive morale, Jones wrote, but the panel is willing to accept the consequences if any decision has a negative effect.

He wrote that he expected the Faculty Senate and university community to support the next A&M president and warned Price against “further thoughts or threats of controversy” surrounding the process, according to the letters obtained by The Eagle earlier this week.

Jones said Thursday that he had no intention of doing away with shared governance and never said anything to indicate otherwise. Regents feel no animosity toward the faculty, Jones said, adding that he didn’t know if the reverse was true and couldn’t address faculty members’ fears.

“I don’t know what to say because I don’t know where they’re getting their information that gives them pause … since no one is supposed to know what we’re doing, who we’re considering or what we’re using in our decision making process,” Jones said during a Thursday telephone interview.

When asked if the Board of Regents wanted input from the Faculty Senate or the search committee, Jones said: “We are always interested in anyone that has constructive input for this process and anyone that has an individual that we would like to consider. We have to remain open to any suggestion for this position.”

Though the two letters already had been made public in academic circles, they were widely circulated Thursday.

Slack, who also is a former Faculty Senate speaker, said people are upset about the tenor of the letter.

“It shows a disdain for shared governance at a major institution in North America, which is kind of unheard of,” Slack said. “It really is.”

Price said the Faculty Senate executive committee would meet during its scheduled meeting Monday to discuss options. Faculty members whom she had never met approached her Thursday to voice support, she said.

“They have been shaking my hand. It’s gratifying.”

Jones would not say if his eight fellow regents signed off on the letter he sent to Price, but said that letter was copied to each of them.

“Again, I’d really rather not get into all of that,” Jones said. “I’m really trying to avoid all of those issues and simply let the letters speak for themselves.”

Regent Jim Wilson on Thursday referred questions to Jones. No other regent responded to repeated interview requests made by The Eagle on Wednesday and Thursday.

When asked about the status of the presidential search, Jones would only say that the Board of Regents was continuing to work toward the end result of getting a new president. He would not say if the panel still was considering the three candidates recommended by the search committee.

Jones also would not address the widespread rumor that regents might be considering Gov. Rick Perry, an Aggie, for the post. Chancellor McKinney and Deputy Chancellor Jay Kimbrough both previously worked for the governor.

“I am not at liberty to discuss anyone the board is considering for this position. But I will say, I suppose, if Gov. Perry wants the job, we might be inclined to give it to him,” Jones said. “But he has a job right now and I don’t think he wants this job.”

The governor’s press office echoed Jones’ remarks. Spokeswoman Allison Castle said Thursday that the notion of Perry assuming the role of A&M president is a rumor that resurfaces “every now and again.”

Castle said she doesn’t believe Perry has talked to any regents about such a move.

“He has a job. I think he loves being governor and that’s certainly where his priorities lie,” Castle said. “He’ll tell you it’s the best job in the world.”

Faculty members also have expressed concern that Interim A&M President Ed Davis soon would be returning to his post as president of the A&M Foundation, Texas A&M’s major fundraising arm. Davis took a leave of absence from the foundation when he was tapped to temporarily replace Gates.

An A&M spokesman said Wednesday that he did not know when Davis’ leave was scheduled to end.

Davis was out of the office Wednesday. He did not respond Thursday to requests for an interview made by The Eagle.

Some on campus have suggested that McKinney could be tapped as interim president, should Davis leave. McKinney said via e-mail on Wednesday that no one has suggested he take on two full-time jobs, but he said that he would do as the regents instructed.

Jones said Thursday that he could not say if the chancellor would be appointed to serve as interim president.

“I’m not at a point where I can talk about anything relating to the situation we currently have or going to have or anyone we’re considering,” he said.

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