More turmoil at Texas A&M -- and it's not about football
Tue September 9, 2008 7:44 am

Texas A&M is experiencing some interesting times. The June 27 firing of Dean Bresciani, the popular vice-president for student affairs, and the subsequent hiring of retired Marine Corps general Joe Weber (Former Perry roommate hired as vice-president of student affairs at Texas A&M) intensified the concern on the College Station campus that Governor Perry is directing (some would say "meddling in") day-to-day decisions at A&M, to the detriment of the University. The culture at A&M does not encourage activism and protest, so this is not a matter that has come out into the open. But it isn't only faculty and administrators who are worried about the future at A&M. It is also prominent Aggie alumni. Perry's perceived involvement in running A&M through his political allies in the A&M System office may cost him support in his 2010 reelection battle with Kay Bailey Hutchison.

The current situation goes back to 2002, when Perry backed Phil Gramm to succeed Ray Bowen as president of A&M. But the Board of Regents still had a majority of members who had been appointed by George W. Bush, and Gates, who was close to the elder George Bush, won the job by a 5-4 vote. When Gates left A&M in December 2006 to become Secretary of Defense, Perry was believed to have the final say in naming Gates's successor, who turned out to be Elsa Murano, dean of the College of Agriculture. Almost immediately upon taking office, Murano demoted or fired some high-ranking administrators whom Gates had hired and surrounded herself with an administrative team that was top-heavy with members of her former administrative team at the College of Agriculture (now known as AgriLife). This did not sit well with faculty from other academic disciplines.

The involvement of the governor in the running of the university could have an adverse impact on the University of Texas as well. There, as at A&M, all of the regents are Perry appointees. UT is looking for a new chancellor to replace Mark Yudof, who left to take a similar position at the University of California system. Higher ed is a relatively small world, and news travels fast. Prominent UT backers are very concerned that stories of political involvement at A&M could scare away candidates for the chancellor's job. (Perry has made no secret that would like to see former state senator and AT&T executive John Montford get the position.)

Universities are strange places. Faculty members like to grumble about events on campus but few ever rouse themselves to action. This is certainly the case at A&M. It is never easy to separate legitimate concerns from general discontent. Murano, the first Hispanic and first woman to serve as president, has an outstanding resume, including a position with the Bush Administration as undersecretary of agriculture for food safety. It is difficult for an outsider to assess the degree of discontent at A&M. I did receive, anonymously, a satirical press release that circulated on campus following Murano's appointment.

THIS JUST IN

Dateline: College Station

In her first annual press conference this morning, Texas A&M President Elsa Murano covered a wide range of issues and made several announcements. Murano confirmed that the custodial staff of the College of Agriculture would be moving to Rudder Tower [site of the president's office]. "These people have been key contributors to the progress of the College of Agriculture in the last several years, and I want them to continue as part of my team. Besides, they are loyal," she stated.

Led by Senior Research Custodian Jones T. "Spiffy" Smith, whom Murano has described as one of the best once-a-week wastebasket emptiers and once-a-month vacuumers in the country, the team will assume their new administrative duties on February 18.

Murano also announced that the reorganization of A&M's academic structure into just two units, the College of Agriculture and the College of Miscellaneous Knowledge, is proceeding on schedule. "We expect a great deal of synergy from combining departments with similar interests," she said, pointing to the success of the Department of Mechanical Engineering and Modern Dance. Similar results were being seen from the Department of Romance Languages and Accounting. Three colleges have been combined into the new structure (Engineering, Business, and Liberal Arts), and Murano stated that the remaining colleges in the university would be folded into the new unit "as soon as effective leadership for the new unit can be identified in the College of Agriculture."

Murano observed that Agriculture and Miscellaneous Knowledge retained the A&M name. She admitted that the new structure has a total of 1.168 Associate and Assistant Deans, Vice-Presidents, and Provosts, but she insisted that this was only a small increase over the former number. Murano suggested that a single college, perhaps called AgriLife Culture, might be even more efficient, but this was in the future.

In a related story, sources close to the President said that the Dean of the College of Miscellaneous Knowledge would be none other than Jones T. Smith, currently director of Academic Services.

Responding to repeated questions, Murano stated that thus far no administrative position had been found at A&M for former New York City mayor Rudolph Giuliani, although she and the Board of Regents have been looking. "Being mayor of New York is noit quite the same as being an administrator in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, is it?" she asked rhetorically. "While Mr. Giuliani has a distinguished career in public service, he really has no background in Agriculture."

In another matter, Murano refused to confirm that Governor Perry will appoint Vice-President for Faculty Discipline J. T. Smith to the Board of Regents following Smith's retirement. Smith's meteoric rise through A&M's administrative ranks has been the subject of much speculation, but Murano defended her protege. "He's from Agriculture, he's loyal, and he knows how to deal with faculty," she said.

Murano revealed that the same consulting firm who created the popular "AgriLife" name for the College of Agriculture & Life Sciences had been retained to develop a new name for the University. "While the Texas A&M name may have a certain nostalgia, this is the 21st Century, and the University's name should reflect that," Murano said. She hinted that there was considerable support among several members of the Board of Regents for the name "James Richard Perry University," but cautioned that "all aspects of the renaming should be considered. Most of the people that I talk to prefer simply, "Rick Perry University."

Murano commented that calling this Rick Perry's Century in Texas was perhaps a bit premature, noting that it only seems like he has been governor for 100 years. "Rick Perry -- I owe him everything," she said.

When contacted for comment, former A&M president Robert Gates said, "Elsa's new management style is very similar to that of my predecessor here at the Department of Defense. She is certainly taking the university in a new direction."

As satire goes, this won't make anyone forget Jonathan Swift. But it's indicative of the concern over the extent of Perry's involvement in the university.

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