Texas A&M sociology professor Rogelio Saenz has written an op-ed piece on the problems of the presidential search at the university. His e-mail said that it “looks like” the piece will be published by one of the big-city dailies. I interviewed Saenz for the profile of then-president Bob Gates that ran in the November 2006 issue of Texas Monthly.

Saenz’s piece begins with a discussion of A&M’s goal, set during the administration of former president Ray Bowen, to become one of the top ten public universities in the country. Only at Texas A&M would this ambition become a matter of controversy. Many members of the Texas A&M community, and this includes some old-line faculty, do not want A&M to become an elite academic university. They are particularly hostile to the recommendation in Vision 2020 that A&M improve its liberal arts programs. Why? Because they fear that the kinds of students who study liberal arts won’t be “real” Aggies. This has been the argument against virtually every major change at Texas A&M — the admission of women, the end of compulsory military education, and proposals for affirmative action. As I have written for the magazine and for the blog, A&M’s ability to adapt to change without losing the essential values that make it a unique and valuable institution is remarkable. Here is Saenz’s piece. That it will not be appreciated by traditional Aggies is a safe prediction.

A Major Obstacle to TAMU’s Vision 2020

Several years ago Texas A&M University (TAMU) set out on a bold course to become one of the top ten public institutions in the country as outlined in its Vision 2020 blueprint. We have recently made major progress toward this end — most telling is the hiring of nearly 450 new faculty members, a major step in gaining national prominence.

Yet, TAMU continues to be hamstrung by a non-academic image. This is a school associated with self-deprecating Aggie jokes along with a deep military image perpetuated through its own public relations. Instead of changing to welcome underrepresented groups who now represent sizable portions of the state’s population — African Americans, Latina/os, gays, lesbians, and related groups — it visually promotes the prototypical Aggie images of the past. This is a place where tradition reigns — a place that is comfortable for traditional Aggie students and alumni but uncomfortable to outsiders or people who do not “get it” or “do not belong.”

The status quo is protected by Texas A&M University System’s most powerful group — the Board of Regents (BOR). This is most recently evidenced by its ongoing controversial selection of a new president for TAMU. Despite forming a carefully selected presidential search committee (including faculty, staff, current and former students, two BOR members, and the president of the local Chamber of Commerce), the BOR ignored its recommendation. From a field of over 140 candidates, the selection committee recommended three highly regarded sitting presidents at other institutions. The finalists included a member of the National Academy of Science and, according to the chair of the search committee, “one of the top rising presidents on the East Coast.” These are exactly the kinds of leaders that TAMU needs to take it to the next level and to shed its non-academic image.

However, these candidates were not appealing to the BOR. As it has changed the rules in the selection of TAMU’s president well into the process, the BOR has hijacked the presidential search. It has arrogantly muted the input of TAMU faculty and the presidential search committee, violating the principle of shared governance. Clearly the candidates selected by the presidential search committee lacked the military medals and an appreciation of TAMU “for what it is” — attributes that the BOR desired. Why establish a presidential search committee with the charge to find highly qualified presidential candidates when the BOR all along knew what it wanted?

Such antics will keep TAMU from joining the ranks of the top ten public institutions in the country and even the ranks of tiers just below. Without the leadership and guidance from top university administrators that have experience running the nation’s major universities, TAMU will continue to wallow academically in its military and provincial past. In the end, the Board of Regents, despite its ostensible support for Vision 2020, is a major obstacle keeping TAMU from achieving that worthy goal.

I agree with Professor Saenz that the regents’ actions will hurt Texas A&M. These flaps do not escape the notice of the national academic community, and the largest component of the U.S. News ratings is general academic reputation. If you think A&M — and by that I mean the university administration, including the regents, rather than Aggies generally — doesn’t care about the rankings, you’re dead wrong. I’m not as concerned as he is that the regents might have a “Forward into the past” viewpoint of reinforcing the military legacy of the university. That legacy is so strong now that it hardly needs to be reinforced. Muster, Silver Taps, the Corps of Cadets, the Memorial Student Center, where people entering must remove their hats or caps: these traditions are embedded in the nature of the university.

While I have generally taken the side of the A&M faculty and administration against the regents in this controversy — in part because of the astounding arrogance of regents chairman Bill Jones’s letter to the speaker of the faculty Senate — I can’t rule out the possibility that the regents just didn’t think that the candidates put forward were a good fit for A&M. The university has a long history of elevating Aggies (either former students or faculty) to the presidency, and some of them (Earl Rudder, Ray Bowen, Bob Gates) rank high on the list of the best leaders the school has ever had.

But the search for a new president is not just something for Aggies to care about. The academic stature of A&M is a matter of great concern for this state. I am reminded of an episode that occurred during the Bush governorship. Some kind of altercation had occurred during a football game because students from another university had dared to set foot on Kyle Field. My memory of this event is cloudy, but my best recollection is that the governor got involved and was told that, according to Aggie tradition, Kyle Field is sacred turf. Bush responded, “No, it’s state property.” Texas A&M is state property. Our tax dollars fund it (or rather, underfund it). The regents need to get this one right.