I WAS LUCKY TO BE STANDING in the student section during the t.u. game. However, I was horrified when I looked across the Kyle Field to the alumni stands midway through the fourth quarter. The second and third decks on the alumni side of the stadium were only 10 percent full. While I understand that we were being outscored on the field, I had always been proud that Aggies stayed and supported their teams to the end… . Everyone needs to keep the spirit alive. I wouldn’t be upset if it wasn’t for former students complaining about the spirit of the current students.
—LETTER TO THE BATTALION, DECEMBER 2003
IN 1964 TEXAS A&M UNIVERSITY decided to open its doors to women. Thirteen female students enrolled that year, and when the school yearbook was published in the spring, their photographs appeared together on a single page, arranged in the shape of a question mark.
Forty years later, the predominant attitude toward change at A&M can still be described by that punctuation mark. Things that would pass unnoticed at other universities—those empty seats in a football stadium during a rout, for instance—take on weighty significance here. This is a campus that is organized around doing the same things in the same ways for decade after decade, and the adherence to tradition has produced a sense of loyalty and unity and a love for the institution that is the university’s greatest asset. And yet, this distinctive culture has implanted in the Aggie psyche a fear of change that at times can be the university’s greatest problem.
Now is one of those times. The academic year that is coming to a close has been a difficult one. A&M has had to deal with the prospect of change in three critical areas: academic stature, ethnic diversity, and tradition. Its academic reputation, as measured by the annual U.S. News and World Report ratings, has slipped badly since the glorious year of 1997, when A&M cracked the lineup of the top fifty universities for the first (and only) time and ranked higher than archrival t.u. Since then, however, A&M has fallen from forty-ninth to a six-way tie for sixty-seventh among the nation’s top 126 universities. More than four hundred faculty positions have not been filled because of tight budgets, with the devastating result that A&M has the lowest percentage of small classes (fewer than twenty students) of any major university and the highest percentage of big classes (more than fifty students). In the late nineties, A&M set out on a long-term quest, called Vision 2020, to be recognized as one of the top ten public universities in America by the end of the second decade of the century. But many students and alumni have mixed feelings about the goal. They worry that in achieving academic prestige, A&M will evolve into an elitist egghead institution—that intellectual Aggies won’t be real Aggies and that the things that make A&M unique, like adherence to tradition and an emphasis on developing leaders, won’t matter anymore.
Diversity became an issue when the U.S. Supreme Court handed down a decision last June allowing universities to consider race as a factor in admissions, which schools in Texas had been prohibited from doing by the now-defunct Hopwood ruling of 1996. The prospect that A&M might adopt race-based admissions dominated campus debate in the fall, with conservative-minded students sponsoring an “affirmative action bake sale” that offered lower prices for non-whites and the school’s new athletics director complaining in a widely disseminated e-mail that the resulting publicity hurt the recruiting of athletes. (This charge had resonance in a year in which the Aggie football team suffered through its first losing season since 1983, including a 77-0 meltdown against Oklahoma; the conservatives responded with the statement that the athletics department should “focus on passing the ball, not the buck.”) But A&M’s president, Robert Gates, decided in December against establishing an affirmative action program, announcing instead that the university would step up its attempts to recruit minority students who meet the standards for admission. This laid bare the issue of whether A&M is “Crackerland,” as one dismayed faculty member put it in a letter to Gates, where—despite official rhetoric and goals to the contrary—minorities are not welcome for fear that they won’t buy into A&M’s traditions (there’s that word again) and prevailing ethos.
Of all the issues facing Texas A&M, the role of tradition is the one that generates the most passion. Nothing else comes close. Engineering is the course of study with the largest enrollment. Agriculture is the school’s historic mission. But no subject is studied so intently on the College Station campus as the fabled Spirit of Aggieland and the traditions that maintain it. Spirit is a concept that most college students leave behind in high school—but not at A&M. Aggies past and present regard it as the essential element that makes their school different from any other. Consequently, the vitality of their traditions is under constant surveillance for signs of backsliding. Do students still greet visitors and each other with the requisite “Howdy”? (No.) Will the closing of the aging but much-loved Hotard residence hall next year lessen the respect for Aggie traditions? (Yes.) Has the suspension of Bonfire following the 1999 tragedy irreversibly diminished the Aggie experience? (Absolutely.) These are serious matters at A&M. They are debated among students and in the widely read Mail Call section of the student newspaper, the Battalion. Every departure from the past is an omen for the vigilant that their school isn’t what it used to be, and most Aggies ask nothing more of Texas A&M than to remain the same. But it can’t. Even the Corps of Cadets, which to outsiders appears to be immune to change, is going through a painful self-examination of its role and relevance at the university as its membership continues to dwindle.
What is happening here is that a 127-year-old university is trying to decide what it wants