Not Guilty

Two former high-level administrators at Texas A&M may have acted unethically—but that doesn’t make them criminals.

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.

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