Texas A&M is in turmoil, but don’t take my word for it. As Jon Hagler, a distinguished alumnus who has chaired the A&M Foundation, wrote in an op-ed piece in The Eagle, the Bryan—College Station daily, “Today’s governance crisis at Texas A&M is extremely serious. It may be the most important crisis the university has faced since A&M president Earl Rudder’s challenge to the status quo fifty years ago.” (The reference is to Rudder’s decision to admit women, over the objections of most students.) Just a month and a half ago, A&M’s president, Elsa Murano, after serving for barely more than a year, was forced to resign following a very public split with Chancellor Mike McKinney. Almost immediately, the faculty senate cast a vote of no confidence in McKinney by a margin of 55 to 9, and former president Ray Bowen went public with his criticisms. The governor of Texas, himself a loyal Aggie, is believed to have been the driving force behind both the hiring and firing of Murano, through his political allies on the board of regents and in high administrative positions. Indeed, Rick Perry’s role in the A&M hierarchy has been formalized. The A&M System’s organizational chart puts the governor first, the regents second, and the chancellor third. The president of A&M occupies a box on a lower level, equivalent to system bureaucrats and the presidents of much smaller outposts in places like Texarkana and Kingsville. (Perry does not appear on the University of Texas System’s org chart.)
Governance is not a glamorous subject. Nevertheless, it is at the heart of what is wrong at Texas A&M. The job of president at the College Station campus, which has always been the most important position in the system, has been downgraded; the chancellor now wields the power. “The Governor/Chancellor tandem, with the approval of the regents, is appointing and firing executives at Texas A&M, without consultation with its faculty,” Hagler wrote. “It is intervening in faculty compensation. And it tolerates no dissent.” It doesn’t make sense to have a chancellor, whose responsibility includes all the satellite campuses in the system, meddling constantly in the affairs of the main campus, which, if everything is going smoothly, is the one place in the system that doesn’t need much attention.
Murano was a disastrous president. When she took the job, she surrounded herself with aides chosen entirely from the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, where she had been dean. In so doing, she cut herself off from the major academic colleges: business, engineering, and liberal arts. She set about firing top administrators whom her predecessor, Robert Gates, had brought in after national searches. One of the targets was Dean Bresciani, the vice president for student affairs, who had a national reputation; he was moved out, at Perry’s urging, to make room for retired Marine Corps lieutenant general Joe Weber, a friend of Perry’s going back to their undergraduate days, whom Perry had tried to get Gates to hire.
The stakes here go beyond politics. What really matters is the future of Texas A&M as an academic powerhouse. The university has set a goal of becoming one of the top ten public universities by 2020. A&M is a fixture on “best value” lists and was ranked number one by Smart Money magazine for “payback ratio”—the earning levels of an institution’s graduates compared with what they paid in tuition, fees, and related costs. But progress toward the goals of Vision 2020, as the self-improvement plan is known, has slowed since Gates departed to become Secretary of Defense, in December 2006, and the goal itself is not shared by the entire A&M community. Many Aggies value intangibles like spirit and leadership more highly than academic prominence. They are skeptical of academic plans, such as the expansion of liberal arts programs, that might attract intellectual types who won’t buy into Aggie traditions. Since the blowup over Murano’s firing, critics of Perry’s and his friends in high places have derisively tagged their aspirations for the university as “Vision 1920.”
The big question is how much political meddling A&M can stand before the quality of the university is affected. The top echelon of higher education comprises a relatively small group known as the Association of American Universities (there are 62 institutions in all). A&M became a member in 2001, during Bowen’s tenure as president. Faculty and administrators from this group of schools run into one another at conferences all the time. Moreover, the widely read Chronicle of Higher Education has covered recent developments at Texas A&M closely. The point is, there are no secrets in this world. Everybody knows that political interference is afoot. A&M currently has an interim president and will soon undertake a search for a permanent one. Will national figures be attracted to a campus where the governor and his friends are running the show and firing administrators to make room for their pals? How much autonomy will the new president have? Can A&M find someone with the experience and vision to complete the university’s resurgence? When I put this last question to one former high administrator, the answer I got was that A&M would probably have trouble bringing in a president from another AAU member. They might have to settle for a provost, or perhaps a president from a second-tier institution. In the meantime, they may find that some faculty members are recruited away by other schools.
This is not the first time that a major Texas university has had to deal with political meddling. It happened at UT in the forties. The incident is all but forgotten today, but it was a serious matter at the time. Homer Rainey, a native Texan, became UT’s president in 1939. He had to contend with a board of regents appointed by W. Lee “Pappy” O’Daniel, a decent singer but one of the worst governors in Texas history, and, later, appointees of Coke Stevenson, a governor who doesn’t rate much higher (Robert Caro’s praise in