Most Aggies ask nothing more of their beloved university than to remain the same. But every departure from the past—and there are many these days—is an omen for the vigilant that Texas A&M isn’t what it used to be. And thank goodness for that.
I WAS LUCKY TO BE STANDING in the student section during the t.u. game. However, I was horrified when I looked across the Kyle Field to the alumni stands midway through the fourth quarter. The second and third decks on the alumni side of the stadium were only 10 percent full. While I understand that we were being outscored on the field, I had always been proud that Aggies stayed and supported their teams to the end. . . . Everyone needs to keep the spirit alive. I wouldn’t be upset if it wasn’t for former students complaining about the spirit of the current students.
—LETTER TO THE BATTALION, DECEMBER 2003
IN 1964 TEXAS A&M UNIVERSITY decided to open its doors to women. Thirteen female students enrolled that year, and when the school yearbook was published in the spring, their photographs appeared together on a single page, arranged in the shape of a question mark.
Forty years later, the predominant attitude toward change at A&M can still be described by that punctuation mark. Things that would pass unnoticed at other universities—those empty seats in a football stadium during a rout, for instance—take on weighty significance here. This is a campus that is organized around doing the same things in the same ways for decade after decade, and the adherence to tradition has produced a sense of loyalty and unity and a love for the institution that is the university’s greatest asset. And yet, this distinctive culture has implanted in the Aggie psyche a fear of change that at times can be the university’s greatest problem.
Now is one of those times. The academic year that is coming to a close has been a difficult one. A&M has had to deal with the prospect of change in three critical areas: academic stature, ethnic diversity, and tradition. Its academic reputation, as measured by the annual U.S. News and World Report ratings, has slipped badly since the glorious year of 1997, when A&M cracked the lineup of the top fifty universities for the first (and only) time and ranked higher than archrival t.u. Since then, however, A&M has fallen from forty-ninth to a six-way tie for sixty-seventh among the nation’s top 126 universities. More than four hundred faculty positions have not been filled because of tight budgets, with the devastating result that A&M has the lowest percentage of small classes (fewer than twenty students) of any major university and the highest percentage of big classes (more than fifty students). In the late nineties, A&M set out on a long-term quest, called Vision 2020, to be recognized as one of the top ten public universities in America by the end of the second decade of the century. But many students and alumni have mixed feelings about the goal. They worry that in achieving academic prestige, A&M will evolve into an elitist egghead institution—that intellectual Aggies won’t be real Aggies and that the things that make A&M unique, like adherence to tradition and an emphasis on developing leaders, won’t matter anymore.
Diversity became an issue when the U.S. Supreme Court handed down a decision last June allowing universities to consider race as a factor in admissions, which schools in Texas had been prohibited from doing by the now-defunct Hopwood ruling of 1996. The prospect that A&M might adopt race-based admissions dominated campus debate in the fall, with conservative-minded students sponsoring an “affirmative action bake sale” that offered lower prices for non-whites and the school’s new athletics director complaining in a widely disseminated e-mail that the resulting publicity hurt the recruiting of athletes. (This charge had resonance in a year in which the Aggie football team suffered through its first losing season since 1983, including a 77-0 meltdown against Oklahoma; the conservatives responded with the statement that the athletics department should “focus on passing the ball, not the buck.”) But A&M’s president, Robert Gates, decided in December against establishing an affirmative action program, announcing instead that the university would step up its attempts to recruit minority students who meet the standards for admission. This laid bare the issue of whether A&M is “Crackerland,” as one dismayed faculty member put it in a letter to Gates, where—despite official rhetoric and goals to the contrary—minorities are not welcome for fear that they won’t buy into A&M’s traditions (there’s that word again) and prevailing ethos.
Of all the issues facing Texas A&M, the role of tradition is the one that generates the most passion. Nothing else comes close. Engineering is the course of study with the largest enrollment. Agriculture is the school’s historic mission. But no subject is studied so intently on the College Station campus as the fabled Spirit of Aggieland and the traditions that maintain it. Spirit is a concept that most college students leave behind in high school—but not at A&M. Aggies past and present regard it as the essential element that makes their school different from any other. Consequently, the vitality of their traditions is under constant surveillance for signs of backsliding. Do students still greet visitors and each other with the requisite “Howdy”? (No.) Will the closing of the aging but much-loved Hotard residence hall next year lessen the respect for Aggie traditions? (Yes.) Has the suspension of Bonfire following the 1999 tragedy irreversibly diminished the Aggie experience? (Absolutely.) These are serious matters at A&M. They are debated among students and in the widely read Mail Call section of the student newspaper, the Battalion. Every departure from the past is an omen for the vigilant that their school isn’t what it used to be, and most Aggies ask nothing more of Texas A&M than to remain the same. But it can’t. Even the Corps of Cadets, which to outsiders appears to be immune to change, is going through a painful self-examination of its role and relevance at the university as its membership continues to dwindle.
What is happening here is that a 127-year-old university is trying to decide what it wants to be when it grows up. Well, not exactly. The decision has already been made for it. In a state with only two flagship institutions, each must be an academic powerhouse. Texas A&M doesn’t have a choice; it can be other things, but it must be that. It must place more emphasis on graduate programs, research, and liberal arts, which is very new for a university with a track record of paying so little heed to areas of study outside its original mission that, for most of its history, academic departments were organized into just four groups: engineering, agriculture, veterinary medicine, and everything else. Not until the creation of a faculty senate, in 1983, did professors have a voice in academic decision making, albeit a small one. Not until February of this year did A&M have a chapter of Phi Beta Kappa, the national honors organization for outstanding achievement in the liberal arts and sciences. Two hundred and sixty-four American universities had PBK chapters before A&M did.
The truth is that A&M is not as different from other universities as Aggies perceive it to be. It is different only in its culture, not in its problems. Its core issues are the same ones facing every major university: academic quality, funding, diversity, size, decaying infrastructure, striking the right balance between undergraduate and graduate education and between teaching and research, and pressure from former students over everything from firing coaches to getting their kids into school. Only one fundamental issue is peculiar to A&M, and it is ever-present: Can the forces of change overcome the forces of resistance?
IN MY 23+ YEARS on this campus, I believe that, in many ways, this was one of the most significant events in Texas A&M’s history! . . . I recall hearing a visitor once describe us as “a campus seething with content,” and I think yesterday’s event was an important and long-overdue wake-up call.
—FACULTY E-MAIL PRAISING THE SUPPORTERS OF A PRO-DIVERSITY RALLY, FEBRUARY 2002
THAT A SENIOR FACULTY MEMBER could consider a mild-mannered demonstration a landmark event suggests just how rare such occurrences are at Texas A&M—and how hard is the lot of those who seek to bring change to the campus. A&M is often described by its critics, inside the university and out, as a politically conservative institution, but the conservatism is as much cultural as ideological. The promotion of mainstream values starts at the top, with president Gates—who said recently in an official statement, “Our culture is grounded in patriotism, religious belief (however expressed), loyalty to family and to one another, a hard work ethic, character, and integrity”—and permeates the Aggie community, right down to the student-run summer orientation program for incoming freshmen known as Fish Camp.
What is striking about these values is that they are personal rather than intellectual; most major university presidents, I suspect, would put open-mindedness and respect for ideas at the top of their list and leave patriotism and religion as matters of individual, rather than institutional, choice. This difference defines the distance that separates the University of Texas and A&M, which sometimes seems more like one hundred years than one hundred miles—and each university is perfectly happy with its choice.
To visit A&M is to see its values on public display. You’re unlikely to run into male students with facial hair or female students with body piercings. You won’t see a lot of frayed shorts or jeans that are worn-out at the knees. The appearance of the students is tidy and so is that of the campus, thanks to near-universal adherence to unwritten rules. Students who come across a wayward piece of trash pick it up. Students who consider taking a shortcut across a lawn resist the urge, lest they trample the grass. No Aggie would forget to take off his gimme cap upon entering the Memorial Student Center, which honors Aggies who fell in battle, and if a visitor did so, he would quickly be told to remove it. Sometimes, though, the enforcement of values by self-appointed guardians can go to absurd extremes. A male student recently wrote a letter to the Battalion relating how three members of the Corps of Cadets tried to hector him into giving up his aisle seat on a campus bus to a girl standing nearby, even though a number of middle seats were vacant.
Inevitably, values issues flare up on campus, as when eight professors in the College of Education objected last spring on religious grounds to a proposed diversity statement drafted by a faculty committee. It called for the “celebration and promotion of all forms of human diversity, including sexual orientation and domestic partnerships.” The dean of the college defended the proposal, leading to a brouhaha that was fought out in the pages of the Battalion. At the time, the dean was one of two finalists for the prestigious post of executive vice president and provost, and her supporters believe that the incident effectively ruined her chances for the promotion.
One day I attended a class called Teaching and Schooling in Modern Society, in the College of Education, which dealt with some of the issues that aspiring teachers would soon face in their own classrooms—what to do about prayer in the schools, for example, or about saying the Pledge of Allegiance. Around 160 students, almost all of them white, about three fourths female, filled the lower rows of an auditorium while two professors fired questions at them. “How many of you favor school prayer?” More than a hundred hands shot up. “Should the Pledge of Allegiance include the words ‘under God’?” A girl raised her hand. “The founding fathers represented one religion,” she said. “If other religions weren’t represented, why should they be allowed to stop everything?” “People are looking for a way to get offended,” said another girl. And another: “I respect someone else’s beliefs, but I can’t see why other people won’t respect mine.” And another: “Government is trying to make teachers a neutral shell. We cannot shed our beliefs.”
One of the professors saw that he was losing the battle. “You may know what you believe,” he said, “and what Scripture means and what the Constitution says, but it won’t necessarily be clear to everybody in your classroom. No matter how much you feel angry about what is happening in the world, you have to put those feelings aside to teach every student in the room.” The students did not seem convinced.
A&M, WHILE RENOWNED for agriculture, engineering, architecture, and business, has a less-than-stellar though slowly improving reputation for liberal arts, which leads many outstanding students to choose the University of Texas instead. If students do choose to attend A&M, they end up grumbling in frustration over the lack of liberal arts class offerings. For instance, UT boasts 650 Spanish majors compared to A&M’s 111, as well as more Spanish professors and graduate students . . . Although the name of the university is now simply Texas A&M, shortening agricultural and mechanical cannot hide the fact that these are still the emphasized aspects of academics.
—OPINION ARTICLE IN THE BATTALION, DECEMBER 2003
ABOUT THE LAST THING A VISITOR to the A&M campus expects is to open the student newspaper and read an article comparing A&M unfavorably with the University of Texas. The booklet for Vision 2020 went even further; it compared A&M not only to UT but to six other top public institutions: Berkeley, UCLA, University of California-San Diego, North Carolina, Michigan, and Wisconsin. This is elite company, and it’s not surprising that A&M’s doctoral programs in the liberal arts received the lowest ratings by far of any university on the list. The most frequent comment that then-president Ray Bowen heard from Aggies, however, was not that A&M had to improve but that it shouldn’t be trying to emulate those schools. “He caught a lot of flack for comparing us to Berkeley,” a longtime A&M administrator told me. “They said, ‘Why do we want to be like a school that has a bunch of hippies and protesters?'”
Whether or not A&M attains the goals of Vision 2020, the act of pursuing them will inevitably change the university. A&M was created as a land-grant college in 1876. Most Americans who have even heard of land-grant colleges remember them as a line in the history books about federal support for education. The idea back in 1862 was to educate the children of the working class in an era when college was mainly for the rich or the religious and mainly about providing a classical education in letters and sciences. Land-grant colleges were created to teach the practical arts, agricultural and mechanical, that could improve society in the industrial age. Liberal arts did not play a prominent role; they served only to round out the education of engineering and agriculture students, not as a course of study in their own right. At A&M, where the emphasis was, as the old saying went, on “cows, sows, and plows,” they barely played a role at all. The pejorative term “teasip,” which Aggies scathingly employ to describe t.u. students, connotes salons and sissified beverages and ivory-tower discussions. This may all seem like ancient history, but at A&M it’s present tense. People still talk about the land-grant mission, though more and more it’s the old-timers on the faculty and in the administration who do the talking, like Joe Townsend, an associate dean in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.
Townsend is a higher-education archetype, the kind of legendary figure who loves his school, seems to know every student by name, and has a long institutional memory. It was Townsend who reached onto a shelf and pulled down the Aggie yearbook from his freshman year to show me the photos of the thirteen pioneer coeds. He is a large man with an open face and an open manner, and as we sat in his office and talked about the changes sweeping over the campus, he stopped four or five times to summon students who passed by his open door. “Come here, I want you to meet somebody,” he would say, and then he would introduce each one by name, major, and hometown. “Being an Aggie is about love,” he said after one encounter. “Aggies love each other. Some kids want an Aggie ring more than a diploma. It’s a spirit that can never be told.”
After graduating in 1967, Townsend taught at Iowa State. He came back in 1984 to a different A&M than he had left, one that was more serious about academics and research. “The good-old-boy system was dissolving,” he said. He pointed to the 1988 firing of Jackie Sherrill, a highly successful football coach who had gotten caught violating NCAA rules, as a turning point—an early indicator that a once-insular institution cared what the outside world thought of it. Today it cares more than ever. That is what Vision 2020 is all about: reputation. And reputation depends on graduate programs and research, not undergraduate education, A&M’s traditional strength, and certainly not on what is referred to at A&M as “the other education,” which is an emphasis on values and leadership. And to Townsend, that is a departure from the land-grant mission. “Students come here with values, and we reinforce them,” he said. “I call it ‘creed, character, conduct.’ A moral compass. The best thing we do here is solidify them.”
It was impossible not to notice a trace of wistfulness in his voice. As A&M focuses more and more on research—tenure, promotion, and raises for professors all hinge on getting research grants—liberal arts is just catching up with the rest of the campus. The College of Agriculture probably produces more cutting-edge research than any other area of the university, and it boasts A&M’s only Nobel laureate, Norman Borlaug. That part of the land-grant mission, service to society, is going strong at A&M, but it’s the other part that has Townsend worried. “We’re here to educate the common man,” he said.
Later I attended his Life Skills class, in which he attempts to do exactly that. Around two hundred students gathered in an auditorium to hear Townsend meld talk of Aggie traditions (“Tonight is Silver Taps [a ceremony to honor a student who has died in the past month]. It’s one of the traditions I hold near and dear to my heart. You should go. You’ll really understand what it means to be an Aggie”) with advice for life (“Your generation is information-rich and experience-poor. We encourage internships and trips abroad. There’s a horticulture fair today. Walk through it; you might find some good internships”). The class ended with an exercise in which students paired off and told each other about their goals. The objective was to learn to be an “active listener” (“Try to maintain eye contact for at least twenty-five seconds”). Perhaps there is a class at UT that tries to mold students, but I couldn’t imagine it.
There was a time when most of the students at A&M were from small towns. Townsend himself was typical. He came from McAllen forty years ago, the first member of his family to go to college. In those days, he told me, “the admissions requirements were that you had to be alive and have fifty bucks.” Today, the likelihood is that seven or eight out of every ten students in his Life Skills class are from the Dallas, Houston, or San Antonio metropolitan areas, and, as Townsend knows all too well, they aren’t likely to walk through horticultural fairs. And that isn’t the only difference between then and now. “Everybody was in the Corps then,” he said. “All Aggies were equal. Today, all Aggies are not equal. If your GPA here is 2.5, you can get into only twenty of the one hundred and twenty-two majors. A lot of Aggies are getting left out.”
Then he brightened. “We’ve still got the mystique and tradition,” he said. “If you meet an Aggie, you’ll know it in two minutes.”
I will be an agent of change. If A&M wants to maintain the status quo, I am the wrong guy for the job.
—ROBERT GATES TO THE PRESIDENTIAL SEARCH COMMITTEE, 2002
SHORTLY AFTER GATES TOOK OVER as president of A&M in August 2002, the summer commencement ceremony was held in Reed Arena. No one suspected that it would be the portent of a revolution. But there it was: The deans were sitting in the front row, where the vice presidents had formerly congregated, and the VPs had been relocated to the second row. And the faculty! Instead of being relegated to the floor of the arena, as had been their previous lot, they were seated on a newly erected stage on the same plane as the one the students walked across. The first goal of Vision 2020, “Elevate our faculty,” was a reality, in geometry if not yet in governance.
At A&M, norms are so well established that no deviation occurs without a reason. Change at A&M inspires scrutiny reminiscent of the way American intelligence officials once pored over photographs of public events in the Soviet Union and China during the cold war, perusing seating arrangements for clues as to who was in favor and who was out, a process few appreciate more than Gates himself, who was the director of the Central Intelligence Agency during the elder George Bush’s presidency. The symbolic message of the new seating assignments was unmistakable: The vice presidents, who had always wielded the real day-to-day power at A&M, were out, and the deans and the faculty were in. The old way of doing things, in which the vice presidents made decisions and then informed the deans, was history. A year and a half later, when I began reporting this story, people were still talking about the event.
“The university’s mission, our mantra, is teaching, research, and service,” Gates told me. “Not administration. Academics needs to drive the decision-making process.” He talks without equivocation. In the movies, you’ve seen spy chiefs who view the world in a black and white way and spy chiefs for whom everything is an uncertain gray. Gates is a black and white guy. He even dresses the part: black suit with faint stripes, white shirt, black tie with white dots, silver hair. We met for over an hour, during which he hardly moved. His eyes are his most powerful feature. I tried to discern their color across the table but could make out only dark impenetrable swirls.
Gates came to the presidency by way of the George Bush School of Government and Public Service, at which he had agreed, with some reluctance, to serve as interim dean at the request of his friend, General Brent Scowcroft, who had been the national security chief in the Bush administration. When he was first approached by the search committee as a possible successor to Ray Bowen, Gates declined in words that he would only describe as “‘absolutely not,’ except stronger.” At age 58, after 26 years with the CIA, he was ready to spend time near his family in the Seattle area. But after 9/11, he says, he felt the tug to do one more tour of public service. The choice for president came down to Gates or former U.S. senator (and former Aggie economics professor) Phil Gramm, and on the board of regents, it was seen as a battle between Bush loyalists and Governor Rick Perry. To the relief of most of the faculty, the former won.
A&M presidents have been known to have problems with regents and influential former students, but Gates is in a strong position. He doesn’t owe Perry anything, since he wasn’t the governor’s candidate. He isn’t an Aggie, as a number of A&M presidents have been, so he doesn’t have to worry that making changes might cause his lifelong friends to stop speaking to him. And then there are two photographs on his wall that he likes to show visitors. One is of his home 85 miles north of Seattle, in the mountains. Another is of his summer home, on Orcas Island, in Puget Sound. “If people start meddling with him,” an old Aggie hand told me, “he can say, ‘Take this job and shove it.'” Or, as Gates put it to me, gesturing at the photographs, “I’ll just go back to heaven.”
Gates addressed one long-running controversy after the 2002 football season by reassigning coach R. C. Slocum, and he has undertaken two major initiatives—rebuilding A&M’s decimated faculty and increasing ethnic diversity without affirmative action—by which his presidency will ultimately be judged. Neither will be easy. Gates wants to add almost 450 new professors—112 in engineering alone, at an initial cost (including laboratories) of half a million dollars each, plus four new engineering buildings that will carry a price tag of $40 million each. The tab for failing to attract more minority students could also be expensive. State senator Royce West, of Dallas, who is African American, hinted that he might inject himself into the school’s athletic recruiting. “If A&M won’t admit my students who want to be engineers, they can’t have my quarterbacks,” West told me. “If A&M won’t admit my teachers, they can’t have my point guards.”
But most of what Gates has done is not the stuff of headlines: new organizational charts, staff layoffs to make ends meet, high-level personnel changes, simplification of the Vision 2020 goals from twelve to four. What insiders noticed was that they were all shrewd moves, especially for a CIA careerist with little firsthand knowledge of universities, particularly this university. He won over the faculty with a reorganization scheme that ensures, in his words, that “academic priorities will provide the framework for all decision making,” something that should have been the case at A&M long ago. He has no bigger fan than Martha Loudder, an accounting professor who is the Speaker of the Faculty Senate. Gates attends senate meetings and invites Loudder to his weekly staff meetings. “I’d walk through fire for that man,” she says.
His CIA experience, Gates says, turned out to be perfect training for a university presidency. “I spent an entire career looking at the difference between what people said and what they did,” he told me. Then he reeled off the things that Texas A&M and the CIA have in common: “They are both large public institutions. They are filled with people who were there before you came and will be there after you leave. If you want to have real change, you have to have an inclusive process, so that somebody besides you will advocate it. Both have very strong internal cultures based upon loyalty to each other. And both absolutely believe that nobody on the outside understands them.”
And, he might have added, both cultures are resistant to change. “There’s a general feeling on the part of alumni, faculty, and students that there has never been so much change here,” he said. “It’s clearly a concern among students that it’s too much. They are very concerned that A&M not become like other universities. They question whether I can take A&M to the next level and still keep what makes A&M unique. I tell them that A&M undertook revolutionary change in the sixties. It admitted women, it ended compulsory membership in the Corps, it integrated the student body, and still preserved what makes A&M special. Why do you think we can’t do it now?”
“What’s their answer?” I asked. “They say nobody says ‘Howdy’ anymore,” Gates said. “If they put down their cell phones, it would help.”
I wish to express in this letter . . . my extreme disappointment with your decision, announced on December 3, not to use race as a factor in recruiting students to TAMU. Your policy choice is particularly problematic given the Supreme Court’s recent decision on affirmative action authorizing universities to use race as one among many criteria to recruit students. As I see it, the issue before us was whether TAMU was going to maintain its image as “Crackerland” (as some people at elite institutions of higher learning mockingly refer to Aggieland), or venture to craft a university in the spirit of openness, diversity, and liberalism (in the philosophical sense of the word). Unfortunately, I am convinced that your decision will not help us shed our image as a backward and conservative institution where people care more about football than academics and where Aggies have no problem being ridiculed in jokes for being stupid.
—LETTER FROM AN A&M PROFESSOR TO PRESIDENT ROBERT GATES, DECEMBER 2003
WHEN THE SUPREME COURT BLESSED affirmative action last summer, proponents of adopting the policy at Texas A&M had high expectations. Gates, after all, had made good on his vow to be an agent of change, and diversity was one of the four goals of Vision 2020 he had singled out for attention. To show their support, a group of faculty members formed an organization called Faculty Committed to an Inclusive Campus. All that remained was for Gates to announce the new admissions policy, as UT and Rice had done before him. But when the announcement came, in early December, it was the old policy under Hopwood: “Admission to Texas A&M will continue to be a competitive process, in which personal merit—individual achievement, leadership potential, and personal strengths—is the only criterion for admission.”
Gates did add a couple of new twists. He promised that the university would try to get more minority students to apply and try to get more of those who were accepted to attend. Deans, professors, administrators, even Gates himself would make phone calls. Currently, 62 percent of white students who are admitted actually enroll at A&M, compared with 48 percent of Hispanics and 44 percent of African Americans. If A&M can raise its “yield”—that is, the enrollment rate—among minority applicants to match UT’s level (59 and 60 percent, respectively), Gates told me, A&M will have turned the corner.
This new approach isn’t really new, which is why the odds are that it won’t work. It represents what A&M has been doing since the Hopwood case, with little to show for it. (Current undergraduate minority enrollment is 9 percent Hispanic and 2 percent African American.) The university has permanent admissions offices in Dallas, San Antonio, and the Rio Grande Valley, with Houston and possibly Laredo to follow. The problem isn’t lack of trying; it’s lack of prospects. Of the 28,295 African American high school graduates in Texas in 2001, the most recent year for which figures are available, only 1,226 met A&M’s admissions criteria—and everybody wants them. UT. Rice. Harvard. Stanford. Some will end up going to a college closer to home: the University of Houston, perhaps, or UT-Arlington. Some will prefer to attend a predominantly black school, such as Prairie View or Texas Southern. The pool of qualified applicants is larger for Hispanics (3,462), but the competition among the top schools is the same, and so is the incentive to stay close to home.
Affirmative action, of course, is a controversial policy. It is discrimination based on race that is sanctioned by government. The reason that universities with high admissions standards embrace affirmative action is not because they are blind to its deficiencies but because nothing else works. The pool is too small. If what A&M plans to do had achieved success elsewhere, everybody would be doing it instead of affirmative action. The one thing just about everybody in higher education—including Robert Gates—believes is that they have an obligation to do something, particularly at a public institution, to serve all of the people of their state and to produce future leaders from all races. “The reality we all must accept is that the alternative to change is stagnation and decline,” he has said. “The reality we all must accept is that we must do a better job of meeting our obligations and responsibilities to all of the citizens of the state of Texas in preparing its students for a changed world. This is not political correctness. This is political realism.”
So why did Gates decide to take the route that he did? Even his strongest critics don’t believe that he could be pressured into giving up on diversity; the professor who sent Gates the despairing letter alluding to “Crackerland” wrote in an accompanying e-mail, “I do recognize that you were (and are) fighting the ‘forces of evil’ and stupidity that have kept TAMU backward for so long.” When I put the question to Gates, his answer was, “Affirmative action didn’t work at Texas A&M before Hopwood. We’re going to do something very Aggie—define our own path.” His official statement, which ran for eight pages, was very Aggie. It began with an homage to the land-grant mission: “In our early days, one father wrote that his Aggie son attended a school where the poor man’s son and the rich man’s son stand precisely on the same footing. Each student is judged by what he is and does. That is the standard by which this university has grown in size and reputation. It is the standard that underpins all our traditions and culture. It is the standard by which we will move forward.” Equality, tradition, culture: very Aggie indeed. Gates must have realized that affirmative action would never have been accepted by the larger Aggie community—especially any former student whose child was rejected for admission—and that the discontent could have imperiled his entire agenda of change. This is political realism too.
That’s not quite the end of the story. At the same time that Gates announced that he was not implementing racial preferences, he revealed that he was raising the standards for automatic admission: at least a 1300 score on the SAT I test, including at least a 600 score in both the verbal and the math sections, and standing in the top quarter of one’s class. The projection is that the new requirements, which will take effect with the entering class of 2005, will cut the number of automatic admissions in half, from around 1,700 to around 850. That will mean 850 more slots for discretionary admissions, for which the criteria will include “unusual experiences” and an essay about additional information an applicant wishes to be considered in the application for admission—”for example, exceptional hardships.” What do you want to bet that the results will turn out to be a lot like affirmative action? As Gates would be the first to tell you, it pays to look at the difference between what people say and what they do.
With the departure of the Class of 2004 on May 15, the Corps will see the end of an era in training doctrine and leadership philosophy, as well as four years of experiences that shaped the ideology of an entire class. With this in mind, many have said that Corps morale is at an all-time low due to changes that have taken place during the last year and a half. For the most part, a feeling of alienation has been expressed by members of the junior and senior classes, who I believe simply become uncomfortable when asked to do things that they do not find familiar. A clash of culture that can be felt over the entire University between the old and the new is, for the most part, a matter of growing pains to better align A&M with American society today. For the Corps, time will heal our wounds that have caused the consternation of a generation who merely grew up under the teachings of the old regime.
—OPINION ARTICLE IN THE BATTALION, MARCH 2004
WILL MCADAMS, THE AUTHOR OF THIS letter and the cadet commander of the Corps, remembers all too well what it was like to be a freshman in the most important organization at Texas A&M. “If you messed up, you had to do physical training,” he said. “We called it ‘Corps games.’ It lasted from eight to four. The academic day was totally violated. I had friends who didn’t go to class for two weeks at a time. You were willing to go through it because you wanted to be a part of something larger than yourself. You sacrificed grades for peer admiration. It was a dismal semester. You could see the attrition when grades came out. I saw my unit start as a class of thirty; now we’re a class of ten. It’s the result of bad grades and the inability to stick it out. My best friend from my hometown was gone in two weeks. Others were run off by peer ostracism. If you survived, you felt like a superman.”
In McAdams’ sophomore year, it was his class that meted out the physical punishment. The upperclassmen led the sophomores into a dorm room and showed them the opening scene of the 1987 film Full Metal Jacket, a tirade of abuse of new recruits by Gunnery Sergeant Hartman, their drill instructor. (“From now on, you’ll speak only when spoken to, and the first and last words out of your filthy sewers will be ‘sir!'”) “That’s how we were shown to be leaders,” McAdams says. “I could quote to you the entire opening scene.”
The character that was the model for the Corps’ leaders was shot and killed later in the film by one of his recruits. The significance of this apparently escaped the students in the Corps for years, but not McAdams or the retired Army officer who serves as commandant of the cadets, Lieutenant General John Van Alstyne. Both understood that if the Corps did not change its blind adherence to the old ways, if it continued to destroy its own members’ chances for academic success, it would not survive at Texas A&M. Inconceivable, you say? The numbers say otherwise: The full strength of the Corps, if every bed in the Corps dormitories were occupied, is 2,600. Seven years ago, the membership was around 2,200. The figure cited today by university officials is around 2,000. The real number, Van Alstyne told me, is 1,706. The Corps is a dying institution. Loud and prominent, but dying nonetheless.
“It’s not in the constitution or the laws of the state of Texas that there has to be a Corps of Cadets at Texas A&M,” Van Alstyne told me. “The things that don’t contribute will fall away in the twenty-first century. If I didn’t believe the Corps could change, I wouldn’t be here.”
Van Alstyne’s plan to reinvigorate the Corps is, first, to recruit (“You can purchase a list—I love capitalism, you can buy anything you want in America—that the service academies have been buying for ten years. It has the name of every youngster in the state of Texas who is on a college preparatory track and who has evidenced some interest in the military in a survey. It has seven thousand names”), and second, to “support our members in achieving their aspirations.” That means emphasizing academics and leadership—not the leadership style of Gunnery Sergeant Hartman, but that of the modern Army, to set high standards and to help people meet them. “Positive leadership,” Van Alstyne calls it. “The role of a leader is to establish a vision, establish organizational values, and establish and sustain an environment of achievement,” he said. “How do we come to that?” He reached for something on a shelf. “This generation is visual,” he said, producing a video cassette of Twelve O’Clock High, a World War II film starring Gregory Peck as a general who struggles to change his leadership style as his fliers become battle-tested. “You turn on the video”—he snapped his fingers—”and you’ve got ’em.”
As it turns out, you’ve got some of them. The resistance in the Corps to positive leadership—to ending the practice of verbal harassment of first-year cadets and putting academics ahead of Corps games—has been overwhelming. “We had buy-in at the higher levels,” McAdams told me, “but not at the lower levels. There are twenty-eight unit commanders and just a small Corps staff. It was a daunting task.
“In the old days,” he said, “you got something intangible from being in the Corps. We want to offer something tangible—a chance at academic success.” McAdams was hoping for a dramatic improvement in the Corps’ GPA last semester, but the actual result was a disappointing increase of only 5 percent of a grade point. “It’s going to be a long process,” he said. “The entire Corps has to cycle through the university. Our numbers keep going down. We have to implement this or be eliminated.”
I missed something on the campus tour I took a few years back and have been living with this realization since my freshman year at Texas A&M. I missed that part on the tour where Aggies commit hate crimes against fellow Aggies and it is acceptable for everyone to turn their head. My friend was beaten up this weekend by a fellow Aggie because he is gay. He is part of the “Aggie family.” Since when has hate become part of the Aggie family? Sure, we can say, “not all Aggies are like that.” But we are only as strong as our weakest link.
—LETTER TO THE BATTALION, JANUARY 2004
A FORMER FACULTY MEMBER ONCE described Texas A&M to me as “part university, part military school, part employment office for retired generals, and part cult.” The latter aspect grew out of the obsession with traditions and the disdain for those who didn’t participate—or, worse, questioned or flouted them. Anyone who fell into this category was known as a “two-percenter.” In the days when just about every student was male, from a small town, and in the Corps, the tiny fraction of dissidents was close to accurate. Today, says student body president Matt Josefy, “‘Two-percenter’ is undergoing a redefinition. It used to be somebody who didn’t stay at a football game. Now we realize that every tradition isn’t going to be bought into by everyone. Some students will never buy into Aggie football. Which traditions are important is a personal decision.”
Of all the changes coming out of A&M, this one may, in the long run, be the most important. It is sacrilege to say so, but for too long tradition has been the tail that wagged the educational dog. A&M’s two most revered traditions, Bonfire and the Corps, gave responsibility to student leaders but also gave them license. That’s why Bonfire is unlikely to return to the campus in its old form, and that’s why the Corps can’t attract and keep recruits. Tradition has become a trump card that overpowers everything, even the diversity issue. “I have to say I am a bit confused about the issue of diversifying A&M and how that would cause a loss in traditions,” a student wrote in a letter to the Battalion. “Can a black person not whoop? Can a homosexual not stand as the Twelfth Man?”
The upholders of tradition say that it is what makes A&M unique, that it is responsible for the sense of family that unites Aggies everywhere. Challenge this view and you will likely hear another longtime A&M adage: “From the outside, you can’t understand it. From the inside, you can’t explain it.” This response does not sit well with, among others, Robert Gates. “I hate that line,” he told me. “We need to tell our story.” If, after 127 years, the loyalty and love that Aggies so demonstrably feel toward their institution depends on resisting change that is necessary for the university to take its place among the nation’s best—something that the people of Texas desperately need for it to do—it’s reasonable to ask whether traditions are worth it after all.