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Hullabaloo

The resignation of Texas A&M’s president has influential Aggies asking whether the governor and his political allies are running the show.

By August 2009Comments

Texas A&M is in turmoil, but don’t take my word for it. As Jon Hagler, a distinguished alumnus who has chaired the A&M Foundation, wrote in an op-ed piece in The Eagle, the Bryan—College Station daily, “Today’s governance crisis at Texas A&M is extremely serious. It may be the most important crisis the university has faced since A&M president Earl Rudder’s challenge to the status quo fifty years ago.” (The reference is to Rudder’s decision to admit women, over the objections of most students.) Just a month and a half ago, A&M’s president, Elsa Murano, after serving for barely more than a year, was forced to resign following a very public split with Chancellor Mike McKinney. Almost immediately, the faculty senate cast a vote of no confidence in McKinney by a margin of 55 to 9, and former president Ray Bowen went public with his criticisms. The governor of Texas, himself a loyal Aggie, is believed to have been the driving force behind both the hiring and firing of Murano, through his political allies on the board of regents and in high administrative positions. Indeed, Rick Perry’s role in the A&M hierarchy has been formalized. The A&M System’s organizational chart puts the governor first, the regents second, and the chancellor third. The president of A&M occupies a box on a lower level, equivalent to system bureaucrats and the presidents of much smaller outposts in places like Texarkana and Kingsville. (Perry does not appear on the University of Texas System’s org chart.)

Governance is not a glamorous subject. Nevertheless, it is at the heart of what is wrong at Texas A&M. The job of president at the College Station campus, which has always been the most important position in the system, has been downgraded; the chancellor now wields the power. “The Governor/Chancellor tandem, with the approval of the regents, is appointing and firing executives at Texas A&M, without consultation with its faculty,” Hagler wrote. “It is intervening in faculty compensation. And it tolerates no dissent.” It doesn’t make sense to have a chancellor, whose responsibility includes all the satellite campuses in the system, meddling constantly in the affairs of the main campus, which, if everything is going smoothly, is the one place in the system that doesn’t need much attention.

Murano was a disastrous president. When she took the job, she surrounded herself with aides chosen entirely from the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, where she had been dean. In so doing, she cut herself off from the major academic colleges: business, engineering, and liberal arts. She set about firing top administrators whom her predecessor, Robert Gates, had brought in after national searches. One of the targets was Dean Bresciani, the vice president for student affairs, who had a national reputation; he was moved out, at Perry’s urging, to make room for retired Marine Corps lieutenant general Joe Weber, a friend of Perry’s going back to their undergraduate days, whom Perry had tried to get Gates to hire.

The stakes here go beyond politics. What really matters is the future of Texas A&M as an academic powerhouse. The university has set a goal of becoming one of the top ten public universities by 2020. A&M is a fixture on “best value” lists and was ranked number one by Smart Money magazine for “payback ratio”—the earning levels of an institution’s graduates compared with what they paid in tuition, fees, and related costs. But progress toward the goals of Vision 2020, as the self-improvement plan is known, has slowed since Gates departed to become Secretary of Defense, in December 2006, and the goal itself is not shared by the entire A&M community. Many Aggies value intangibles like spirit and leadership more highly than academic prominence. They are skeptical of academic plans, such as the expansion of liberal arts programs, that might attract intellectual types who won’t buy into Aggie traditions. Since the blowup over Murano’s firing, critics of Perry’s and his friends in high places have derisively tagged their aspirations for the university as “Vision 1920.”

The big question is how much political meddling A&M can stand before the quality of the university is affected. The top echelon of higher education comprises a relatively small group known as the Association of American Universities (there are 62 institutions in all). A&M became a member in 2001, during Bowen’s tenure as president. Faculty and administrators from this group of schools run into one another at conferences all the time. Moreover, the widely read Chronicle of Higher Education has covered recent developments at Texas A&M closely. The point is, there are no secrets in this world. Everybody knows that political interference is afoot. A&M currently has an interim president and will soon undertake a search for a permanent one. Will national figures be attracted to a campus where the governor and his friends are running the show and firing administrators to make room for their pals? How much autonomy will the new president have? Can A&M find someone with the experience and vision to complete the university’s resurgence? When I put this last question to one former high administrator, the answer I got was that A&M would probably have trouble bringing in a president from another AAU member. They might have to settle for a provost, or perhaps a president from a second-tier institution. In the meantime, they may find that some faculty members are recruited away by other schools.

This is not the first time that a major Texas university has had to deal with political meddling. It happened at UT in the forties. The incident is all but forgotten today, but it was a serious matter at the time. Homer Rainey, a native Texan, became UT’s president in 1939. He had to contend with a board of regents appointed by W. Lee “Pappy” O’Daniel, a decent singer but one of the worst governors in Texas history, and, later, appointees of Coke Stevenson, a governor who doesn’t rate much higher (Robert Caro’s praise in the second volume of his LBJ biography notwithstanding). Rainey’s presidency occurred during a period when the dominant Democratic party was dividing into pro- and anti-Roosevelt factions. O’Daniel’s appointees were anti-Roosevelt. Stevenson’s were too, including one D. F. Strickland, the leading lobbyist of the day, and a timber baron named Lutcher Stark. In 1942 the regents voted to fire three economics professors who had supported the limiting of the workweek to forty hours. The American Association of University Professors sent an investigator to Texas, who concluded that a violation of academic freedom had taken place.

This was soon followed by Strickland’s attempt to have John Dos Passos’s trilogy, U.S.A., removed from an English Department reading list. He failed. Strickland later attempted to ban tenure at UT (he had been successful in influencing A&M regents to do so) and did get the tenure policy revised. Stark wanted Rainey to fire three employees of the University Interscholastic League for changing eligibility rules for high school football, which rendered two of his sons, who were seniors, unable to compete. Rainey refused. Each of these incidents caused him to lose support, though he never really had much to begin with. Rainey hung on until November 1944, when the regents terminated him. Subsequently the AAUP, the Southern Association of Colleges and Secondary Schools, and Phi Beta Kappa all reprimanded the university. Rainey sought vindication by running for governor in 1946, but he lost to Beauford Jester in the Democratic primary runoff. The effects of political interference can linger for a long time. UT did not fully recover from Rainey’s firing until Harry Ransom became president of the university, in 1960.

This is not 1944, and Perry’s regents at A&M are not Pappy O’Daniel’s at UT. But they do appear to have their priorities mixed up. Their loyalty is to the governor and not—as should be the case—to the institution. Bowen’s message to the regents, in an op-ed published in The Eagle shortly after Hagler’s, is that they, not the governor, are ultimately responsible for what happens at A&M. “The Board of Regents needs to display independence and integrity,” he wrote. “Regents need to address, in a thoughtful and open manner, how this crisis has developed on their watch. The quality of our university, our system and the education of its students will be materially damaged if the Board of Regents persists with ignoring the real issues.”

One of the concerns about Perry, expressed by those who have been leaders of the university, is that he has surrounded himself with people whose views are out of the mainstream of contemporary thinking about higher ed: Tenure is bad; faculty members are stupid or liberal (or both) and should teach rather than do research; funding should be tied to graduation rates. There is also concern that Perry has blind faith in the concept of accountability. During the 2007 legislative session, the governor’s staff pressed hard for incentive funding, which would make appropriations dependent on improving graduation rates and lowering the time it takes for students to get a degree. The problem, as university president after university president pointed out in testimony before the House Appropriations Subcommittee for Higher Education, is that many students at schools that serve inner-city and border populations are not full-time; they may have to work, and they may end up dropping out of school and returning several times before getting their degrees. Incentive funding will penalize them. The universities also opposed Perry’s idea to attach requirements to financial aid, so that if a student doesn’t maintain a 3.0 grade point average and carry a full load, he will have to start repaying the loan. This makes loan programs unattractive to students, particularly Hispanics, who, according to the testimony, tend to be debt-averse. It’s a case of applying an ideological view that doesn’t fit the real world of higher ed.

Texas needs Texas A&M to achieve its full academic potential. I have no doubt that Perry and McKinney love A&M and believe they are doing the right thing. But they aren’t. They need a president of the top rank, and they need to let the regents and the leaders of the university do their jobs without political interference. “You dream about having an Aggie governor for the first time in history,” a former administrator told me, acknowledging the sad irony, “and when it comes true, it turns into the world’s worst nightmare.”

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