Senior executive editor Paul Burka has been a frequent visitor to Aggieland in recent months. He discusses the past, the present, and the future of Texas A&M and evaluates the prospects of Vision 2020.
texasmonthly.com: In 1997 you wrote an article declaring Texas A&M the best public undergraduate university in the state. Why did you decide to look at A&M again?
Paul Burka: Since doing that story, I’ve written about A&M on two other occasions—one was about the 1999 Bonfire tragedy, the other about the retirement, in 2002, of President Ray Bowen—so I’ve kept up with what is going on at A&M generally. The moment that made me want to do another story occurred when I was doing research for an article I wrote last fall on the aspirations of the University of Texas. I noticed that, in the six years since my first Aggie story, A&M had dropped substantially in the annual U.S. News and World Report rankings of American universities—at a time when the school-announced goal, in a project called Vision 2020, was to become one of the top ten public universities in America by the year 2020. The main reason for A&M’s decline (from forty-ninth to a six-way tie for sixty-seventh among 126 major universities) was average class size. A&M had the lowest percentage of small classes of any university on the list and the highest percentage of large classes. Small classes used to be one of A&M’s strengths, so I wondered what was going on over there. I made a couple of phone calls and found out that quite a lot was going on. The faculty was some four hundred positions short of full strength. The campus was divided over whether to institute an affirmative action program in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision that race could be a factor in college admissions.
One of my colleagues, Pam Colloff, was working on a story about a student effort to bring back Bonfire, and that seemed to epitomize the perpetual struggle at A&M between the old and the new. The university’s new president, Robert Gates, has vowed to be an agent of change. One of his initiatives is to bring the faculty up to full strength. Change is always a big story at A&M because the exalted role of tradition in campus life means that there is always a huge constituency for preserving things as they are. I decided to revisit A&M in the spring, after I finished my story in the February issue on President Bush (“The Man Who Isn’t There,” February 2004). Once I got started on the A&M story, I realized that the changes were even more widespread than I had imagined.
texasmonthly.com: What is the most interesting thing you learned while working on this story?
PB: That’s easy. It was that the impetus for change has even penetrated into the last place you would expect to find it: the Corps of Cadets, the fortress of tradition at Texas A&M. The Corps is down to an all-time low of 1,706 members, mainly because its training methods—which are patterned after the verbal and physical hazing of Marine drill instructors in movies such as Full Metal Jacket—make it incredibly difficult for first-year students to remain in good academic standing. It’s totally self-defeating, and it’s taken the Corps forty years after the end of compulsory military training to realize it. But the realization has set in, thanks to the retired general in charge and the cadet commander. Naturally, the rank-and-file members of the Corps have fought them every step of the way. Keeping “fish,” as the freshmen are known, out of school for weeks at a time to do physical training is a tradition at A&M. But the truth is that if the Corps does not change, it will not survive.
texasmonthly.com: Were students, faculty members, and administrators willing to talk openly about the university’s weaknesses?
PB: Oh, yes. One of the great things about A&M is that there isn’t a false note about the place. Everybody loves the school, and everybody has an opinion about what it needs to do. From President Gates down to the students I interviewed, people were extremely open about their views. I want to clarify one thing though: I wouldn’t describe what they were doing as “talking about the university’s weaknesses.” Most Aggies are relentlessly positive people. So if they were talking about, say, affirmative action—whichever side they were on—they tended to talk about why their position was good for A&M, rather than why the alternative view was bad.
texasmonthly.com: In your opinion, which A&M traditions should be maintained, and which need to go?
PB: Some traditions are essential to what makes A&M a unique place: Muster is the annual worldwide gathering of Aggies on San Jacinto Day to remember their friends who have died in the past year; Silver Taps is a ceremony honoring a student who has died in the previous month. These traditions establish the notion that Aggies are lifelong members of a large family. Other traditions are fading with the times, such as saying “Howdy” to everyone you meet on campus. (Several girls told me that it’s a pickup line these days.) Standing throughout a football game, staying until the game is over, swaying by alternate rows to the fight song—Aggies will be doing these things a hundred years from now. But there are two traditions that got out of hand. One was Bonfire, which resulted in serious injuries and occasional deaths even before the 1999 collapse. Like the Corps, it involved too much time and too little concern for students’ academic needs. It allowed a few students who were in charge, called redpots, to have complete control over a five-hundred-ton construction project. Redpots and administrators alike ignored warnings from engineering professors that the design was dangerous. Safety considerations that were standard in years past—no freshmen working on the stack, for example—were forgotten. If Bonfire ever does return to campus (and the insurance cost may be prohibitive), it should be totally changed so that the time required, the risk of serious injury, and the authority delegated to student leaders are greatly reduced. The other tradition that got out of hand and needs to go is the Corps’ training methods. The Corps is too important to Texas A&M to allow a bunch of kids who get their kicks out of hazing other kids to destroy it, which is what is happening now. If the U.S. military can change to positive leadership, why can’t the Corps of Cadets?
texasmonthly.com: When you were in College Station, did anyone greet you with “Howdy”?
PB: Nary a soul—and I made thirteen day trips to the campus.
texasmonthly.com: Were you able to assess the overall student sentiment about academics versus traditions at A&M?
PB: I certainly talked to a lot of people about this. I think that for more and more students, tradition means less and less. I don’t mean that tradition is unimportant. I mean that most students come to A&M for academics first. They may be there for other reasons too—because they like the conservative atmosphere (political and cultural), for instance. But academics is the main reason. Surveys have borne that out. But there are other reasons why the role of tradition is declining. One is size. A&M has 45,000 students. Only around 10,000 can live on campus. Many of those who live off campus tend not to return at night for Silver Taps or midnight yell practice. Another is the absence of Bonfire. The fifth-year seniors are the only students left on campus who remember how intense the building of Bonfire was, with its twelve-hour shifts. That opportunity for bonding by hundreds, even thousands, of students no longer exists. Still another reason is the 10 percent rule. Almost half the freshman class this year was automatically admitted under the rule, which means there are fewer places for students who are drawn to A&M by the opportunity to participate in traditions. The president of the student body—I quote him in the story—told me that it is no longer expected that everyone participate in every tradition. Students choose those that are meaningful to them. Actually, this trend was already evident by 1997. Bonfire was for “Old Army” types who put tradition first. Another phrase used to describe them—it’s considered polite language at A&M—is “red-ass Aggies.” But Bonfire culture repelled a lot of students who gravitated more to student government and service organizations. It used to be that students who didn’t buy into everything Aggie, especially the traditions, were known as 2 percenters, but today, if you talk to fifth-year seniors who want to bring back Bonfire, they will tell you that they are the true 2 percenters, the last ones who remember how it used to be when tradition meant everything. Really, the balance between academics and tradition isn’t that important. What’s important is that the love for the school is as widespread as ever.
texasmonthly.com: What is your impression of Vision 2020? How do you see its prospects for success?
PB: To become a top ten public university will be a huge challenge for Texas A&M. It’s very fast company. To crack the top ten, A&M will have to beat out one of the following, in the current U.S. News order: Berkeley, Virginia, Michigan, UCLA, North Carolina, William and Mary, UC-San Diego, Wisconsin, Georgia Tech, and Illinois—plus fifteen other universities, including UT. University ratings depend heavily on reputation, as perceived by administrators at other universities, and reputation primarily rests on the strength of graduate programs, not undergraduate education. A&M’s graduate programs in liberal arts are light-years away from being top ten. It is going to cost hundreds of millions of dollars to bring the entire faculty up to full strength. It is going to cost hundreds of millions of dollars to house four hundred new faculty members and provide labs for the sciences. Recruiting faculty to live in College Station is no snap. If the sought-after professor is married, finding a job for a spouse can be a problem. If the sought-after professor is single or an ethnic minority or gay, he or she probably won’t be comfortable living in College Station. Some faculty members who fit one of these descriptions prefer to live in Houston or Austin or at points in between. The advantage that A&M has at the moment is that most public universities can’t afford to be in the job market right now, so A&M has a good chance to recruit new faculty, thanks to tuition deregulation in Texas, which has provided an infusion of cash. But the days of higher education being a top priority in the state budget are over. A&M is a very good university, but it has a long, long way to go before being recognized as a great one, and I don’t see how it can get there in sixteen years. Since Vision 2020 was adopted, the university has been dropping in academic rankings, not improving.
texasmonthly.com: In your story you say that some Aggies think that intellectual Aggies won’t be real Aggies. Do you think Vision 2020 is taking A&M in the wrong direction?
PB: I’m of two minds about this. I say in the story that A&M must be a top-rated flagship institution. This is essential for the future of Texas. But I also think that the glory of A&M is that it has taken generation after generation of kids from rural Texas and shaped them into leaders of the state. Governor Rick Perry is a classic example. He was a kid from a farm near Haskell, and A&M put him on the road to success. What worries me is that A&M is becoming just like UT now—a school that gets most of its students from the state’s three big metropolitan areas. The act of making A&M into a superuniversity with ever-higher admissions standards and more emphasis on graduate education will inevitably dilute A&M’s historic mission to educate the children of the working class.
texasmonthly.com: You got your undergraduate degree from Rice and your law degree from UT. Do you agree with the Aggie saying “From the outside you can’t understand it, from the inside you can’t explain it”?
PB: The sense of loyalty and family that Aggies share is a remarkable thing. It really is hard to explain—and hard to understand—how that culture develops and how, for so many Aggies, it lasts a lifetime. On the other hand, something about that saying rubs me the wrong way. It’s a cop-out. When A&M comes under unfriendly scrutiny, the line is invoked (not by administrators but by students and alumni) to avoid having to make an explanation. If, for example, you ask why A&M would want to bring back a program that killed twelve Aggies and injured countless more and had no accountability and no governance, you might hear that line.
texasmonthly.com: Should UT and other universities implement courses like Joe Townsend’s Life Skills course?
PB: Other schools have orientation courses, but typically, these courses are a waste of time. Townsend’s is different because he uses it to help students appreciate what it means to be an Aggie. In the class that I attended, he emphasized traditions, leadership, and service, all of which are embedded in the culture at A&M more than at any other school except maybe the service academies. I think if you tried to transplant that course to, say, the University of Texas, you would not have the same success. UT students are not going to practice “active listening,” a drill in which students pair off and practice looking their partner in the eye while the partner talks about his or her life goals. Aggies come to A&M wanting to be a part of something bigger than themselves, and this kind of course reinforces that predisposition.
texasmonthly.com: What do you foresee as the future of the Corps?
PB: Either the Corps will change along the lines sought by General John Van Alstyne and cadet commander Will McAdams—from negative leadership to positive leadership—or it will wither away. Either it will make membership in the Corps compatible with academic achievement or it won’t survive. This isn’t just my opinion. It’s the opinion of the Corps’ leadership. Will McAdams is a remarkably courageous person, to have risked his friendships and the respect of his peers to try to save the Corps from itself. Will ran for student body president, but he lost the runoff by a large margin. He deserved better. The average A&M student loves to have the Corps around for football games, but on a day-to-day basis, there is a lot of resentment toward the Corps for its members’ habits of trying to force other students’ compliance with traditions and, in some cases, for harboring attitudes toward women and minorities that are not compatible with A&M’s self-description as a friendly and welcoming institution. Those resentments boiled over at the ballot box.
texasmonthly.com: Why do you think Aggie jokes still enjoy so much popularity? What’s your favorite one?
PB: Oh, no. I’m not going down that road. You’ll hear no Aggie jokes from me. There was a time when Texas Monthly didn’t take A&M seriously, just made sport of the university, and Aggies resented us a lot. In retrospect, I don’t blame them. We were very slow to realize that the old stereotype of the dumb Aggie was no longer true, or maybe we just didn’t want to know. So we almost missed the story that A&M was making huge strides academically in the nineties. When I went to College Station in 1997, my assignment was to write about infighting on the board of regents. Fortunately, when I got there, I realized after a few interviews that the real story was about how much A&M had changed and how it had surpassed UT in undergraduate academic rankings. I came away with enormous respect and fondness for Texas A&M. The story I eventually wrote that year, about the perpetual battle between Old Aggies, who resist change, and New Aggies, who fight to bring it about, is one of my all-time favorites, because it went beyond the stereotype. It buried the stereotype.