FEW WEEKS AGO TEXAS A&M UNIVERSITY president Ray Bowen bought a new black pickup. The color is the sort of detail that would pass unnoticed at most universities, but A&M, we all know, is not like most universities. On the College Station campus, only two pigments matter—maroon and not- maroon—and Bowen’s choice of not-maroon was a sad reminder to his admirers on campus that the end of his tenure is at hand. Now 66, he has announced that he will return to private life by June 30 after eight years on the job, the fourth-longest term of any A&M president.
Unless they face a major crisis, most university presidents remain little known outside the boundaries of their jurisdiction, geographical and temporal. Bowen, and A&M, had the misfortune to face such a crisis—the tragic collapse of the Aggie Bonfire in November 1999, resulting in the loss of twelve young lives and serious injury to many more. Much of the A&M community favored adherence to Aggie tradition by continuing Bonfire as it had always been, but Bowen appointed a commission to study the accident and, based on its report, announced a two-year hiatus until fall 2002. He recently extended the postponement by an additional year.
As difficult as his decision was, Bowen’s response to the Bonfire tragedy was not the most significant achievement of his presidency. At a time when public higher education in Texas—and particularly the state’s two flagship universities, A&M and the University of Texas—has suffered from years of declining political support, Ray Bowen did more than any other president since General James Earl Rudder, A&M’s greatest leader, to change the university for the better. Rudder, a D-day hero, brought about the admission of women and the end of compulsory military education in the sixties. More than three decades later Bowen achieved something that once would have been equally unimaginable at A&M: He shepherded the school into the top rank of American institutions of higher education. This is not PR puffery; it’s official: In May 2001 the prestigious Association of American Universities invited Texas A&M to become its sixty-second member and just the third from this state, alongside Rice University and UT, both of which went to bat for A&M. “What does it mean?” Bowen said when I saw him in his office in Rudder Tower in late March. “It’s like winning the national championship in football five years in a row.”
The momentum established by Bowen’s presidency is particularly important now that the choosing of his successor threatens to become subordinated to politics. Published reports of a backroom deal have Governor Rick Perry, a former Aggie yell leader, championing a plan under which retiring U.S. senator Phil Gramm, a former A&M economics professor, would leave early and succeed either Bowen or the ailing chancellor of the Texas A&M system, Howard Graves. This would create a vacancy in the Senate to which Perry could appoint Texas attorney general John Cornyn, thereby creating a vacancy in the AG’s office, to which Perry could appoint former Texas Supreme Court justice Greg Abbott. Both Cornyn and Abbott could then run as Republican incumbents in November for the higher offices they are currently seeking. It’s a clever plan, but even if Cornyn and Abbott win their elections, A&M will be left with Phil Gramm. He is certainly smart enough to hold the job, and his appointment would bring instant national attention to the university. But, to vary a phrase used by George W. Bush, Gramm is a divider, not a uniter, the antithesis of Ray Bowen.
Perry’s involvement is an indication of just how difficult a job the A&M presidency can be and how well Bowen has handled it. Because Aggies at all levels—big donors, former students, current students, faculty, parents of students, even governors—have such an intense feeling for their school, every member of the community considers it his right to make his opinion heard about anything. Aggies’ love for A&M, it has been said, is the school’s greatest asset but at times can be its greatest curse. Every Aggie thinks he knows what is best for A&M; most of them want it to remain the same as when they were in school, only better. If academic standards rise to the point where their kids can’t get admitted, if the football team doesn’t beat tu, or if a tradition like Bonfire has to change, you can bet the president will hear about it. Bowen, like most successful university presidents, is willing to make tough calls, take the heat, and shoot straight with allies and critics alike, but most of all he has been a consensus-builder. This combination of attributes makes it possible for him to make the changes in academics (a long-needed expansion of the library), in athletics (higher graduation rates), and in Bonfire safety that marked his term.
A tall man with silver hair, Bowen can radiate a commanding, CEO-like presence. On the day that I saw him, his voice was calm and his body language spoke of a relaxed mood as he stretched out his legs under a table, but he kept his suit coat on and buttoned, ready to be the CEO again at a moment’s notice. Deep furrows ran across his forehead; a recent development, they were not present in a photograph of him that was published in this magazine two years ago, shortly after the Bonfire collapse. His other noticeable physical feature was his meaty engineer’s hands, which are also professorial hands. When he wanted to make a point, he extended his right arm in front of his body and jiggled his hand out to the right, as if to write on an invisible blackboard that separated us.
Bowen earned his bachelor’s and doctorate degrees at A&M, then embarked on a career that eventually took him to Rice as a professor and the head of the department of mechanical engineering, then to Oklahoma State as interim president, and finally back to Aggieland. “I watched A&M from Rice for a long time,” he said. “It continued to get better, but there was chaos at the top—infighting on the board of regents, conflict between the A&M system and the main university, and the football team was on probation. I make a distinction between the core of the university and the externals. The core was really solid, but the rest was in turmoil. I’ve been able to stabilize that external layer.”
The crucial factor, Bowen said, was George W. Bush’s appointments to the A&M Board of Regents. “They were policy setters,” he said. “They didn’t try to micromanage. When I came here in 1994 [the year that Bush won the governorship], there was a strong feeling on the board that the faculty were the bad guys, that they were too liberal. We’ve done a one-eighty on that by giving the regents the opportunity to meet the faculty. It was sheer luck. The right people came along at the right time.”
I mentioned to him that there are those who say he was under pressure—that some regents wanted him to fire football coach R. C. Slocum and that prominent Aggies were unhappy with the suspension of Bonfire. Bowen shot out an arm in the direction of Kyle Field. “I tell them, ‘Wally Groff [the athletic director] controls the football coach,'” he said. “More regents talk about the coach than they did three years ago, but they don’t step over the line.”
While many Aggies still want Bonfire to resume—there were several small bonfires on private land this year, Bowen said—the issue no longer has the intensity it once did. “When it became obvious that we couldn’t have a bonfire in 2002, we speculated about the reaction of the community,” he said. “We thought it might be negative. We were completely wrong. At all levels, people accepted the fact that we didn’t have a choice.”
Success eluded Bowen in only one place—the Capitol, where the politics of higher education is rife with ambition and jealousy. The idea that Texas should have two, and only two, flagship universities is under attack in Houston, in Dallas, in Denton, in Lubbock, in South Texas—wherever there is a university that covets elite status. But great universities cost money—more graduate programs, more buildings, more professors—and there isn’t enough to go around (and, of course, no one wants to raise taxes to pay for them). So A&M and UT constantly find themselves forced to defend their turf, and heaven help them when they ask the Legislature for more funding. “I recognize that the state doesn’t have much money,” Bowen said. “It’s rational to invest in other universities. What is not rational is that you diminish your world-class universities. There’s a culture in the Capitol that you don’t work together. In order to defend themselves against your request for more money, legislators hit you over the head.”
He has even harsher words for the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, which is supposed to oversee state policy. A&M has had several clashes with the agency during Bowen’s presidency, including the board’s lawsuit against and subsequent rejection of A&M’s attempt to merge with the South Texas College of Law in Houston. “The board is supposed to be an advocate for higher education,” Bowen said. “It’s not in their culture. They’re a police force.”
I asked the obligatory question about how he thought he would be remembered. Bonfire? Setting the goal for A&M to be one of the top ten public universities in the nation by 2020? “Parking garages,” Bowen said. He let the joke linger and then turned serious. “As a very straightforward, honest person, who was approachable. As someone who liked to hand a student a cell phone and say, ‘Call your mother.’ That’s good enough.”