Agent of Change

Robert Gates helped win the cold war as director of the CIA, but that assignment was a walk in the park compared with his current one: bringing Texas A&M university’s unique but not always admired culture into the modern era and remaking the way the world views Aggieland—and the way Aggieland views the world.
Agent of Change
Gates, photographed in his office on the Texas A&M campus on September 28, 2006.
Photograph by Wyatt McSpadden

Some may boast of the prowess bold,
Of the school they think so grand,
But there’s a spirit can ne’er be told
It’s the spirit of Aggieland.

So begins the Texas A&M alma mater. Like school songs everywhere, it was not written to be controversial. But if you stop to think about the words, you might ask yourself, If the story is so great, so unique, then why hasn’t it been told? Why not tell it? You might wonder, too, whether Texas A&M has paid a price for not telling it, whether the lyrics hint at a circle-the-wagons attitude in the A&M community: that many Aggies, past and present, don’t care what the outside world thinks of Texas A&M, so long as the Aggie spirit remains a vibrant and living presence on the College Station campus. And you might consider whether a saying that Aggies have about that spirit—“From the outside, you can’t understand it; from the inside, you can’t explain it”—serves Texas A&M well or badly.

It so happens that Robert M. Gates, the president of Texas A&M University, has been thinking about these exact questions for the past four years. Don’t tell him that A&M can’t be explained. “I hate that phrase,” he says. “I don’t think it’s accurate. Texas A&M is a unique blending of academic excellence, tradition, and spirit. That is explainable.”

Gates, 63, knows a thing or two about large communities with distinct identities, long -established ways of doing things, and an aversion to explaining themselves, having spent his entire career before coming to A&M working for the Central Intelligence Agency, where he reached the top of the organization chart as director of central intelligence from 1991 to 1993. It may seem a strange course to go from the nation’s spymaster (although he came up through the intelligence-analyzing side of the CIA, as the agency’s foremost student of the Soviet Union during the Cold War, rather than through the covert-operations side) to the presidency of a large state university, but Gates finds more in common between the two places than you might think. “Both have very strong cultures,” he said. “Both cultures are very difficult to change. Both organizations think that no one on the outside understands us. And both believe that only we know how to do what we do.”

We were sitting at a table in his office, on the tenth floor of Rudder Tower, named for Earl Rudder, A&M’s greatest president, with a view looking north over the huge campus and beyond to the rich Brazos farmland that brought A&M to this spot 130 years ago. He has silver hair that lies obediently on either side of his part, a round face, and alert blue eyes—when I could see them. As we talked, Gates seldom made visual contact, preferring to fix his gaze on the distant panorama afforded by a picture window. His line of sight was a full ninety degrees to the right of where I was sitting. I have since mused about his body language, trying to guess at its meaning. Was it an old habit, a way of making sure that he wasn’t giving away any clues that could be “read” by a potential adversary? Was it a form of gamesmanship? Or was it his way of focusing, of shutting out extraneous stimuli to concentrate on his answers?

We had just returned from the photo shoot for the cover of this issue. From the steps of a columned administration building on the east side of the campus, we could barely make out in the distance the memorial to the victims of the 1999 Bonfire collapse. Surrounded by students wearing shorts and T-shirts (except for uniformed cadets), he had stood erect and motionless for almost half an hour in a black suit, under a merciless sun. Offered a bottle of water, he refused. Advised to shuck his coat, he declined. When the shoot was over, not a bead of sweat showed on forehead nor brow, not a strand of hair had strayed from its assigned place. Now, coat shucked at last, he wore his patriotism on his sleeve, literally: gold cuff links with a design of the American flag.

A man who will not compromise with the sun is a person to be reckoned with, and that is how Bob Gates has come to be viewed at Texas A&M. As the university’s twenty-second president, he is determined to leave his mark on the school as few previous leaders have done. One can infer from his CIA background that he is not easily dissuaded from his chosen course or prone to doubting his own powers of observation. And his chosen course is to change the way the world views Texas A&M, not to mention the way Texas A&M views itself.

To accomplish this, Gates has created a new position, chief marketing officer and vice president for communications, whose job will be to oversee what Gates calls the “rebranding of Texas A&M.” Now, I daresay that most Texans, to say nothing of most Aggies, regard A&M as already being one of the best-branded schools in America. There is Harvard, there is Berkeley, there is Notre Dame, and there is Texas A&M. Some longtime Aggies have expressed skepticism to me about the need for rebranding; one described it as “a solution looking for a problem.” But Gates is determined to see it through. “There is a huge opportunity cost if we don’t do it,” he said. “We need to significantly improve the public’s knowledge and perception of the university.”

The branding campaign is only one of the ways in which Gates is trying to transform A&M. It is hard to come up with an area of the university that has escaped his gaze—or his action. The administration. The faculty. The athletics department. The Corps of Cadets. Minority admissions. Graduate programs. A new undergraduate degree program. How buildings ought to be utilized. How decisions get made. Even the food service. I can’t imagine a

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