Love and Hate at Texas A&M

Facing accusations ranging from rape to bad manners, tradition-bound Aggie corpsman can’t decide whether to welcome women or drive them off.
Love and Hate at Texas A&M
Photograph by Dan Winters

Duncan Dining Hall looks like a place built for modern-day Olympians, which is exactly the impression it was designed to create. It is a cavernous, harshly lit space deep in the heart of Aggieland, at south end of the Quad, where Texas A&M’s corps of cadets dwells. The walls display romantic banners from corps outfits—everything from flying tigers to leering skulls, from knights in armor to menacing machine guns. Photographs commemorate moments of Aggie glory—a visit from Franklin Roosevelt, a must ceremony at Corregidor. Here the young warriors attack their manly meals of chicken-fried steak or hamburgers or sausage, along with mashed potatoes and gravy and all the pie a boy could eat, all served at blitzkrieg speed. Duncan, it is said by corps members with pride, is the fastest dining hall in the country. It can serve almost two thousand cadets in less than twelve minutes.

There is no escaping the extra-strength, unadulterated maleness of Duncan. Panning the room, you see a sea of young men in khaki uniforms, their hair shorn mercilessly close to their skulls. They wolf down food; they rise to bark orders or jump to respond to them; they march in formation to their seats. They bang on tables with their silverware; they spill food on purpose; they sing songs that only they can truly understand. Duncan fairly throbs with young men happy to be young men, secure in their belief that the camaraderie and trial by fire that has defined life in the corps for generations is the best preparation for manhood there is.

Only one small, almost invisible group looks less than delirious to be here. Look past the Lite Meal line, with its 1,800 calorie steamed-veggie section, just beyond the more than generous salad bar, with its mound of shredded carrots, and you will see some long, lonely faces. The khaki uniforms fit uneasily across these cadets’ chests, and they look sheepish, rather than sunny, when marching and chanting as they tote their dinner trays with their arms extending at precisely a ninety-degree angle from their bodies. They look as if they would rather not have to stand and recite another moment in A&M’s glorious campusology; they look, in fact, as if they would rather not be here at all. These cadets are the seventy or so women warriors at Texas A&M, and they are not alone in wishing that they could be elsewhere. Many of the 1,880 men here in Duncan regard the women not as colleagues, nor even as outsiders, but as outright enemies in a battle that is completely different from the male high jinks that are so much a part of Aggie tradition. In the corps, the war between the sexes is anything but metaphorical.

Seldom, however, has it been so public. As one male officer, sporting senior boots and enough ribbons and medals to impress a Third World potentate, explains, “It has been a long semester.” Since the beginning of the school year, several women corps members have charged their male counterparts with abuse ranging from assault to verbal harassment, all designed to drive women out of the corps of cadets. The accusations have resulted in what any Aggie would describe as “very bad bull”: The women were quoted in Newsweek and the New York Times, and they appeared, shrouded in shadow, on CNN, blackening the name of A&M in general and the corps in particular.

The current scandal began last September, when a female cadet reported that she had been surrounded by three corpsmen, one of whom threatened here with a knife, in an attempt to scare her out of an elite corps organization. Later she said she was the victim of what Aggies call a blanket party—she was kidnapped from campus, had a plastic bag put over her head, and was beaten by several corps members. Subsequently, several more women came forward with stories of their own, accusing male cadets of an ax handle beating, rape, and obscene insults. But the situation became clouded when the original accuser, whose name was never revealed, recanted her two stories. Opinion on campus is divided as to whether she did so voluntarily or under pressure. (She declined to be interviewed for this story.) The male cadets, meanwhile, have denied all accusations of physical abuse. As is so often the case in the war between the sexes—most recently in the Clarence Thomas hearings and the William Kennedy Smith rape trial—only the participants know the truth. But no one disputes that there is enormous hostility toward women cadets among male corps members.

The charges have sent the corpsmen—so secure until now about the world and their place in it—into a very un-Aggielike funk. “I’m so conscious of doing the right thing, I’m dysfunctional,” says one. Many cadets see themselves not as perpetrators of discrimination but as defenders of all that they—and their fathers and grandfathers before them—hold dear: the rough-and-tumble, resolutely male way of life that they believe should never have been open to females in the first place. Food fights, push-ups, crap outs—that’s life in the corps, and if women don’t like it, as the oft-applied Aggie aphorism goes, Highway 6 (College Station’s main business artery), runs both ways. “The corps is a hard place—it has its own culture, its own language, its own thoughts,” says a male corps member. “But the only time that is called discrimination is when it’s done to women.”

I WANTED TO BELIEVE THIS WAS AN ACCIDENT,” Carolyn Muckley says grimly, referring to the day a male cadet kicked her in the back, near her kidneys. It happened in November 1991. Muckley, who is 22 and a fifth-year senior who graduated from the corps last spring, was sitting on the grass in a picnic area where she had just finished grading a group of cadets doing sit-ups for a fitness test. As befits a member of the Reserved Officers Training Corps, she was dressed in camouflage trousers, lightweight combat boots, and a black T-shirt

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