THIS MONTH’S COVER STORY chronicles the emergence of Texas A&M as a major academic university. This is great news for Texas. It would be even greater had it not been overshadowed by a campus scandal that was developing at the same time. For the past several years, Texas A&M has been the target of a criminal investigation into ethics and management practices at the highest levels of its administration. Ross Margraves, the former chairman of the board of regents, and Robert Smith, the former vice president for finance and administration, have been convicted of criminal offenses. If it seems strange to praise Texas A&M at the same time that so many are finding fault with it, one answer is that a new administration has confessed to A&M’s “institutional arrogance” and put reforms in place. Another is that there is much more to the scandal at Texas A&M than is readily apparent. The scandal is not about corruption at all. There was no corruption—no lying, no cheating, no stealing. This scandal is about public ethics, or rather our confusion as a society about what public ethics ought to be and how we ought to enforce them. Margraves and Smith may have used poor judgment at times. But that is not a criminal offense.
The investigation of A&M was triggered by an anonymous letter to Governor Ann Richards in September 1992. Over the typewritten signature of “A Concerned Aggie,” the letter accused Margraves and Smith of using privatization of the university bookstore and other functions “to be lavishly entertained and perhaps line their own pockets…”
The letter touched off a criminal investigation that would last more than three years. Its allegation of self-enrichment was never substantiated. But the investigation did uncover a see-no-evil management style at Texas A&M that was medieval in its obeisance to rank and privilege. Regents could fly around the state on university airplanes at will and have buildings named for themselves; administrators could make decisions without checks and balances or adherence to by-the-book procedure. Professors and employees ordered liquor for official functions under the guise of food and drink. Margraves and Smith did not create this system, but they did take advantage of it. Smith was convicted of soliciting a gift from a company seeking an extension of the bookstore contract, a misdemeanor; Margraves was convicted of official misconduct, a felony, for using a university airplane for a personal purpose. The two cases were tried in different counties, but the juries ended up with the same decision in each case: a guilty verdict, a fine, and a probated sentence. (Both men are appealing their convictions.) To the public, it must have seemed as if justice was done.
But it wasn’t. The massive investigation had turned up nothing crooked after all. The infractions that led to the convictions of Margraves and Smith occurred a year after the anonymous letter and were minor, technical, and ambiguous. What Robert Smith did that brought him before a jury of his peers was to accept, quite legally, a free trip to New York from Barnes and Noble, which won the bookstore contract—and then ask if he could bring his wife along. Margraves flew to Baton Rouge on an A&M airplane, met with Louisiana State University’s chancellor to discuss the possibility that A&M athletic teams might join the Southeastern Conference—and attended his son’s graduation. Their conduct might be ethically questionable, but it was not corrupt.
The Texas A&M investigation, then, might be dismissed as much ado about very little, except that it raises one of the central political themes of late twentieth-century America: What standards of conduct should we impose upon our public servants, and how should they be punished for failing to live up to our expectations? Richard Nixon brought the issue to the forefront, and Ted Kennedy, Gary Hart, and Ollie North kept it there. Our response to Watergate was to impose tighter rules for ethical behavior, and we have been tightening the rules ever since. But the intense focus on ethics has had an unpredictable effect: In our zeal to make certain that no ethical breach goes unpunished, we have created so many obscure requirements involving crimes that we have come to define the ethics of public service according to what is legal or illegal instead of what is right or wrong. All sorts of gotchas lurk in the rules. Jim Wright resigned as Speaker of the House and Newt Gingrich, Wright’s accuser, may yet have to do the same, but how many people could tell you precisely what either person did to go astray or whether the violation made Wright or Gingrich a less worthy public servant than he otherwise was? Laws are trump cards in the ethics debate; every law replaces a moral choice.
The anonymous letter was really a response not to corruption but to change, a sensitive issue at Texas A&M, where there is a tradition for everything. Margraves was a strong advocate of privatization. Smith, the administration’s contact with the regents, jumped on the privatization bandwagon. Margraves proposed putting the soft drink contract for the campus up for bids instead of automatically renewing it with the local Coca-Cola bottler; he favored bringing in a national chain to run the student center bookstore; he wanted a food court with brand-name franchises that would supplement the university food service; and he advocated building a cogeneration power plant with Tenneco, which would have been the most expensive capital project in the history of the university. The new contracts would bring in much more money for A&M, Margraves said, and up to a point, he was right: The soft drink and bookstore contracts each have increased A&M’s revenue by more than $1 million a year, and the food court has been a huge success. But by bringing in outsiders, Margraves made enemies of the well-connected local interests who were shoved aside. Smith had no shortage of enemies as well. He was a smart and tough administrator who became the deliverer