The Last Aggie Joke

Texas A&M is going to save the world. No kidding.

Dr. Gary Smith was clearly concerned. The meeting had begun at 2, and here it was nearly 3:30 with his turn to talk nowhere in sight. A genial man with a shiny bald head, he sat with three of his fellow professors from the Animal Sciences division of Texas A&M, waiting to explain their new discoveries to the visiting reporter. Dr. Smith waited patiently while Dr. Tom Cartwright (this is the kind of place where all PhDs are called “Doctor”) gave his chart-and-lecture presentation on the Herd Dynamics theory of cattle management. He began to fidget when Dr. A. R. “Tony” Sorensen elaborated upon the new frontiers in bovine reproduction. Finally, unable to sit still any longer, he bolted from the room when Dr. William Ellis started in on the nuances of ruminant digestion.

Five minutes later he was back again, but seeing that Ellis was still going strong, he slipped out the door and returned just in time to explain his own “Texas A&M Tenderstretch” system, a new way of suspending freshly killed beef carcasses so as to cut down on the effects of rigor mortis and make tough meat more tender.

I sure hope you’ll excuse me for running in and out like this,” he said as he began. “Some of my students are working on a project over in the next building, and I like to see how they’re coming along. They’re making a 55-foot frankfurter. It’ll be a world record.”

Yes, there are big doings out in Aggieland. They have world-class hotdogs, and the buns to match. They have hermaphroditic cucumbers, they have two-story onions. They are making highways out of garbage and peanuts into milk. They have the spittlebug on the run. They are counting insects by computer, they have peered into the recesses of the pine-beetle’s antennae. They are growing lettuce in moon soil, so as to be prepared when the first lunar farm gets underway.

Under that farmland sky, amid the gentle zephyrs from the swineyard and the music of the marching Aggie band, there is a miracle underway that has nothing to do with beating the University of Texas in football. If the Family of Man ever has reason to thank our state, it will not be for the Astrodome or the chicken-fried steak, but for oft-ridiculed, much-maligned Texas A&M. The university best known for its shaved-headed, brown-shirted Corps and a massive inferiority complex is producing the innovations that will feed the hungry, clothe the poor, and, not incidentally, enrich the people of Texas. The last shall be first, and the lowly Aggie shall earn the thanks of all.

Some people have no respect for historical cycles. For more than a year now the rest of the nation has been seething about Texas’ prosperity during these officially declared Hard Times. And if Massachusetts and Connecticut, with their brown-out summers and their long unemployment lines, feel a generalized ill will toward the people of the sunny and booming Southwest, imagine the special edge of resentment that Harvard and Yale, now moaning for relief from whatever source they can find, would feel twisting in their entrails if they knew what was happening at Texas A&M. For, in the middle of national academia’s darkest hour, the Aggies are lolling in the sunshine of big funding and fast growth, outstripping even their traditional Southwestern rivals in the bigger-is-better sweepstakes.

The fastest growing university in the nation right now is conveniently located between Houston, Dallas, and Austin; there were 21,463 Aggies last year (a quarter of them women), which is 34 percent more than just two years ago. Not only have the Aggies swollen in number, they have also improved in quality. One hundred and twenty-nine National Merit Scholars enrolled at A&M last fall, more than any other public institution in the state. (Overstepping itself, A&M claimed for a while that it had more of these prize students than any other university in Texas; when Rice got news of this, it asked for, and received, a formal apology from A&M’s president.) While College Board scores have been declining through the nation, at A&M they have been rising (some say they could not fall), to a mean of 1057 for last year’s freshmen.

More germane to our story is the boom in A&M’s research projects. When the 1973 returns for research allocations came in, the Aggies had cracked the National Science Foundation’s Top Twenty chart of universities receiving research and development grants. A&M’s $33.2 million that year was more than any other school in the South or Southwest, and was exceeded in the upper reaches of the chart only by such traditional feeders at the public trough as MIT and the University of Michigan. (Significantly, while A&M was 20 th in the overall standings, it was number three in industry-supported research.) The final rankings for 1974 are not yet in, but A&M’s $37 million, an 11 percent increase in one year, is almost sure to move the Aggies even further up the charts.

At a time when the federal government seems to sponsor research projects in direct proportion to their pointlessness and obscurity, the work done at College Station seems admirably concrete. There is an almost infinite variety to the projects underway at A&M, from basic research into the biting habits of the shark, to development of a new typewriter which will supposedly foster linguistic unity among the peoples of the Indian subcontinent. About one-third of the research budget goes to the Texas Engineering Experiment Station and the Texas Transportation Institute, the latter having pioneered many of the most important highway-safety innovations of the last decade, including breakaway sign posts and padded abutments. The TTI, which is now branching out into such alien fields as mass transit and railroad planning, was also behind the experimental garbage highway built near Houston, a project which was working fine until city incinerators were shut down to cut pollution, thereby creating one of the less likely of our modern shortages,

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