Did You Hear the One About The New Aggies?

They put education ahead of football, admitted more women than men, and learned the difference between good traditions and bad ones—and turned Texas A&M into the state’s top-rated public university. No kidding.
Did You Hear the One About The New Aggies?
Illustration by C. Payne

“TEXAS A&M IS NOT GOING TO BECOME a school of nerds.” These unlikely words have just been spoken by Ray Bowen, the president of the university, who is explaining to me why he doesn’t want to see the average Scholastic Assessment Test score of A&M students rise much higher than the current 1174—even though scores at the University of Texas are higher. “A&M’s mission has always been to train leaders,” Bowen says. “I don’t ever want us to get to the point where test scores count more than leadership.” That the president of Texas A&M should be worried about keeping test scores down instead of getting them up is all the evidence necessary to establish how much A&M has changed in recent years and how far it has come academically. As recently as the mid-seventies, the catalog requirements for admission to the College Station campus were only that a student had to be a college-track high school graduate of good moral character and free of infectious and contagious diseases. Today A&M’s SAT scores exceed the average at most major state universities—not just gimmes like Louisiana State University and Oklahoma but also such respected flagship institutions as Ohio State, Illinois, Indiana, Purdue, Minnesota, Connecticut, and Washington.

Reputations, though, are hard to live down, and for many Texans who have grown up on Aggie jokes, the idea that the onetime Agricultural and Mechanical College of Texas has evolved into an academic powerhouse is a Copernican challenge to long-held assumptions about the order of the universe. Indeed, as Bowen switches into a conversation about his desire to bring A&M’s library up to the elite standards of the Association of Research Libraries, a corner of my mind dredges up the hoariest of Aggie jokes: “Did you hear what happened to the Aggie library? It had to close because somebody checked out the book.” And the sequel: “When the book was returned, the library couldn’t reopen. All the pictures had been colored.”

But the old Texas A&M that gave rise to the stereotype no longer exists. Last October U.S. News and World Report ’s annual ranking of American colleges and universities—based on eleven numerical indicators ranging from test scores to the percentage of alumni who give money—placed Texas A&M among the top fifty schools in the country for the first time. UT-Austin, which had been on the list in previous years, dropped off. And that’s not all. A&M now has the largest full-time undergraduate enrollment in America. Its annual research funding ranks sixth nationally. Among Texas colleges, it has the best retention rate from freshman to sophomore year and the best graduation rate. At a time when state and federal support for education is under intense budget pressure, A&M has just raised $637 million from alumni and other private sources—the largest fund drive ever completed by a public university. The University of Texas is still the superior graduate institution, but Texas A&M had earned the right to be called the best public undergraduate university in the state.

Any attempt to rate something as individualized and subjective as higher education is open to attack, of course. UT student body president Jeff Tsai denounced the U.S. News ranking system as “a specious attempt to quantify the intangible elements of higher education” and called for the university to withhold statistical data from the magazine in future years. Still, the U.S. News top ten—Yale, Princeton, Harvard, Duke, MIT, Stanford, Dartmouth, Brown, Cal Tech, and Northwestern—could hardly be confused with the Associated Press football rankings, nor does it suggest that there is some giant flaw in the formula. And if it is intangibles that make the difference in education, well, Texas A&M will match its intangibles with anyone’s. For almost a century, intangibles—tradition, loyalty, school spirit, service to the school—were all that Texas A&M had going for it. These values, sometimes referred to by Aggies as “the other education,” remain among A&M’s most cherished assets. UT president Robert Berdahl has told Ray Bowen that what UT needs is a stronger sense of place and more loyalty from its alumni. When the University of Texas wants to emulate anything about Texas A&M, you know that times have changed.

The rise of A&M to academic prominence is a remarkable odyssey. It was born a stepchild in 1876, declared by the state constitution to be a “branch of the University of Texas,” which would not even exist for another six years. For the first half-century, the school faced repeated threats by the Legislature to shut it down. As recently as the 1950’s it was more likely that the school would cease to exist than become a serious academic institution. Over the years, A&M has had to overcome politics, poverty, isolation, fire, and ridicule. Most of all, though, it has had to overcome Aggies.

The lifetime love and loyalty that Aggies have for their school have been A&M’s greatest asset—and its greatest liability. Its long history as an all-male, compulsory military institution made the experience of attending A&M intense and unique. All universities must deal with alumni who don’t want their school to change, but at A&M the pressure from former students (which is the correct designation for Aggie alums, since there is no such creature as an ex-Aggie) to resist change has been extreme and unyielding. No university has had to endure more fights over what its fundamental mission should be. Until recent years, the occasional attempts to elevate scholarship inevitably lost out to advocates of technical education, military training, and character and leadership development.

The history of Texas A&M, then, has been an unending battle between New Aggies, who saw the change as something that could elevate the school, and Old Aggies, who were passionate in their conviction that change would destroy it. To describe such feelings as hypersensitive is an understatement. John Lindsey, a current A&M regent from Houston, says that there are Old Aggies who still have not spoken to him since he advocated the admission of women back in

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