Can Anyone Save the Aggies? (Hint: It won’t be Rick Perry.)

Politics, leadership struggles, and the recent resignation of President Elsa Murano have some Aggies in crisis mode.

The Sunday resignation of Elsa Murano, the first woman and first Hispanic to serve as president of Texas A&M, extends a leadership crisis that has engulfed the university since Murano’s predecessor, Robert Gates, stepped down to become Secretary of Defense in the fall of 2006. At first, events appeared to follow a normal course. Chancellor Mike McKinney appointed a search committee, representing a cross-section of the A&M community, to recommend candidates to succeed Gates. The committee forwarded three names, all of them described as current university presidents with distinguished reputations, to the Board of Regents. That’s when everything went off the track. The regents accepted none of the candidates and took over the search in the fall of 2007. A terse exchange of letters between the speaker of the Faculty Senate and the chairman of the Board of Regents revealed the ill will on both sides. Eventually the regents chose Murano, the dean of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, who had been interviewed by the search committee but not recommended. She took office in January 2008.

Because Governor Rick Perry had appointed all of the regents and had a close friendship with Chancellor Mike McKinney, speculation raged that politics was involved in the choice of Murano. The governor is no stranger to fights over high-level academic positions. He backed former U.S. senator Phil Gramm against Gates in 2002 and, more recently, favored former state senator and AT&T executive John Montford against Francisco Cigarroa, the president of the University of Texas Health Science Center in San Antonio, for the post of UT chancellor. Perry lost both battles.

The appearance of being Perry’s choice hurt Murano from the moment she took office. The new president did little to win friends by dismissing high-level administrators whom Gates had brought in. She surrounded herself in the president’s office with loyalists from the College of Agriculture who had little connection with the major academic colleges of engineering, business, and liberal arts. Last summer, she forced the resignation of Dean Bresciani, the popular and highly regarded vice-president of student affairs, and replaced him with retired Marine Corps Lieutenant General Joe Weber, who had been a roommate of Perry’s during their years at A&M.

The first public indication that something was amiss came in May, when McKinney revealed that he was considering a merger of his position with Murano’s as a money-saving measure. McKinney’s salary has been reported at $533,000, Murano’s at $450,000, in a budget of $1.2 billion. The next shoe to drop, in early June, was McKinney’s annual review of Murano’s performance, dated February 9 but made public due to open records requests. Her average score (grades for each rating category ranged from 1 to 5) was 2.7, according to published reports. The faculty closed ranks behind her, including the chairman of the 2007 search committee, but her situation was clearly beyond salvaging. One day before the regents were to meet to deal with the friction between the two top officials, Murano submitted her resignation. She will return to her tenured faculty position in the College of Agriculture.

Murano’s departure raises two big questions. One is about governance at Texas A&M. Who should run the flagship, the chancellor or the president? The chancellor is responsible for universities in Commerce, Corpus Christi, Kingsville, Laredo, Stephenville, Texarkana, as well as Prairie View A&M. Should Chancellor McKinney be deeply engrossed in managing the main university as well—and to what extent is his involvement politically inspired?

The second question is whether two years of turmoil at the top, going on three, will do harm to Texas A&M, if unresolved? This is how Jon Hagler, a Distinguished Alumnus of Texas A&M, described the issue facing the university in an op-ed piece published Monday in the Bryan-College Station Eagle:

Today’s crisis really isn’t about Elsa Murano, who has announced her intention to resign as president, or for that matter, Chancellor Mike McKinney. It is about whether an academic institution of almost 50,000 students and 250,000 former students—a member of the Association of American Universities—deserves the freedom to aspire to better things and to manage itself as an institution of higher education. We are presented with a stark reality: an all powerful “system,” run by political appointees, without legislative oversight, who wish to unilaterally politicize and “corporatize” decision-making structure and staffing to their own, and to their political friends’, advantage.

Certain things about A&M are indestructible: the love and loyalty of its students and former students, its sound academic foundation, and its importance for the people of Texas. Other things, though, are fragile. One of these is academic reputation. A&M has an official goal, known as Vision 2020, to be in the top rank of public universities by that date. Critics of McKinney’s involvement refer to the current crisis as “Vision

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