When Robert Gates left Texas A&M for the Pentagon several years ago, at Pappy Bush’s behest to pull incompetent W.’s chestnuts out of the Iraq War fires, a debate raged on Aggie web forums: Should possibly the greatest president in Texas A&M history be awarded the vaunted Aggie Ring? Eventually, common sense prevailed and Gates assumed his position among A&M’s storied leaders, beside Earl Rudder and Sullivan Ross, but without the sacred ring one must earn through the student experience. Instead, the Corps of Cadets that Gates joined on early-morning runs awarded him a pair of custom-made senior boots—which is no small honor for a non-student in Aggieland.
The rave reviews of the Gates administration stand in stark contrast to the enmity heaped upon his predecessor, Ray Bowen, and the lukewarm reception afford his successor, Elsa Murano. Yet, his administration was not perfect, despite the Teflon coating that remains two years after he vacated the eighth floor of Rudder Tower. With Gates’ willingness to stay on as Secretary of Defense under Barack Obama, not every Aggie’s choice for president, is it now time to seek a more critical examination of his four years as A&M’s president? Will his willingness to serve a hated Democrat open the door to a critical review of his administration as our university’s leader?
It’s hard to find a serious critic of Robert Gates’ presidential administration at Texas A&M. Indeed, Gates increased funding for academics, repaired faculty-administration rifts, and forged a warm relationship with just about every segment of the Aggie community. He dodged the tricky question of affirmative action by rejecting quotas but aggressively recruiting minorities, to include increasing minority scholarships, while ending legacy admission preferences. He increased faculty numbers, built buildings, and moved A&M’s athletic department into the 21st century by hiring the school’s first professional athletic director.
Most Aggies won’t admit it, but the biggest contribution Gates made to Texas A&M may have been trumping his most serious rival for the presidency back in 2002, former Senator Phil Gramm. When the unpopular Ray Bowen resigned under pressure, his lack of supervision of the ill-fated Bonfire tradition being only the tip of the iceberg that sank his presidency, right-wing Aggies got behind the former A&M economics professor—much to the chagrin of the faculty, which despised Gramm’s divisive politics as much as it disrespected his shoddy academic scholarship. The main fund-raising bodies for both the academic and athletic sides of the university, the Association of Former Students and the Twelfth-Man Foundation, endorsed Gramm’s candidacy for president. It became a contest between the right-wing and moderate Republicans in the Aggie power structure. The latter won when Bush the Elder—whose presidential library on campus gives him unusual influence for a non-A&M graduate—intervened by pushing his former CIA director through the Board of Regents.
Six years later, even the most bedrock conservative in Aggieland seems not to begrudge the fact that Senator Phil didn’t get the job. Gates’ capable administration, combined with his chameleon-like ability to appear sympathetic to every Maroon viewpoint (although he wasn’t), leads some to wonder where Texas A&M will eventually build the statue dedicated to its 30th president. That Aggie conservatives remain agog over Gates’ tenure belies the fact this this “agent of change” may have changed A&M in ways that Old Ags will eventually rue. That the university’s small progressive community made its peace with this partisan Republican (he and his wife donated $4,000 to W.’s 2004 reelection) hardly means Gates’ tenure should be considered an example of reform. Let’s examine some of the question marks.
For years, the Texas legislature mandated that tuition could rise by only $2 per semester hour each year. Although state universities periodically circumvented that restriction with increased fees, public colleges were once one of the state’s greatest bargains. For generations, Aggies from the hardscrabble farm and ranch communities viewed Texas A&M as their one chance to climb the economic ladder.
When Robert Gates became A&M’s president in August of 2002, statutory undergraduate tuition cost $44 per semester hour. US News once ranked A&M as one of its best values in education. Then Texas governor Rick Perry, an Aggie, projected a $9.9 billion state budget deficit and warned public agencies to plan for cuts. This was the opening that University of Texas president Larry Faulkner had sought for several years, and he found a willing ally in Robert Gates, a market-minded Republican who appreciated the goldmine that unrestricted tuition increases would provide for Texas A&M.
The state budget deficit never swelled to the level of Perry’s prediction, but tuition skyrocketed. In the first two years of deregulation, total undergraduate tuition increased by 75 percent. By the end of Gates’ term as president in 2006, Texas A&M was charging its undergraduates $145.70 per semester hour. Combined with continued growth in non-tuition fee additions, the average cost of a public university education rose above the national average. In the 1980s, Texas state universities billed their in-state students the lowest tuition rates in the nation. By this year, our state ranks 19th among the most expensive, charging more than any other state in the southwest or west.
After a year under interim president Ed Davis, in came Else Murano, Aggieland’s first female and Hispanic president (although, as a Cuban-American, a safe Republican). As one of her first acts, she halved the university’s planned annual tuition increase, and later announced a program by which students from families earning less than $60,000 per year would pay no tuition if they maintained their grades.
Nevertheless, Aggieland’s love affair with “no tuition hike I didn’t like” Gates remains strong, although his decisions on this issue have probably changed forever the kind of student who matriculates in College Station. Now, instead of that up-from-poverty farm or ranch kid, rural students who drive those fully depreciated diesel pickup trucks to school are probably the children of rich farmers, bedrock social conservatives who make sure their congressman continues to favor agricultural subsidies. More the likely, today’s Aggie comes from towns whose names used to be synonymous with agriculture (e.g., Farmer’s Branch)—which a generation ago became subdivided exurbs of Houston, Dallas, or San Antonio.
Meanwhile, Aggie traditionalists complain that these kids leave the football games early!
Football and Athletics
When Bob Gates arrived in Aggieland, he billed himself an “agent of change.” As his first major decision, he changed the football coach, no small matter in this den of pigskin madness. Out went the legendary R. C. Slocum, who won more games than any predecessor (123-47-2), went to 11 bowl games, never had a losing season, and beat the hated but athletically superior University of Texas half the time duirng his 14 seasons as head coach. Unfortunately, during a final season that saw the Aggies defeat No.1-ranked Oklahoma, Slocum’s team finished 6-6, providing the “agent of change” the opportunity to bring in Dennis Franchione for a cool $2 million per year, twice what the university ever paid its most winning coach.
Franchione flopped. After five unspectacular seasons, inducing a scandal in his last, Coach Fran collected a$2 million severance package and gave way to a Slocum protege, Mike Sherman, who finished 4-8 last season and lost to the Horns by 40 points.
Under “Dollar Bill” Byrne, whom Gates hired as Aggie athletic director after nudging out long-serving predecessor Wally Groff, A&M has enjoyed unparalleled success in other, albeit lesser sports. Last year, the Aggies won a record eight Big-12 Conference championships. Under coaches hired by Byrne, previously morbid men’s and women’s basketball programs have made repeat appearances in the NCAA tournament. The declining baseball team reversed course and has fallen just short of the College World Series for two consecutive seasons.
Such success has had its price. Texas A&M’s football ticket prices skyrocketed to second in the Big-12 behind Texas, and Aggie students pay more than T-Sips for their tickets. Nowadays, Aggie traditionalists complain that the student section isn’t always filled. This crowd won’t settle for kissing on first downs!
Racism and Race Relations
When Betty Unterberger, Texas A&M’s first female professor, came to work in 1968, she confronted student attitudes that were very different from those at Cal-Irvine, where she previously taught. Many of her American history students, some of whom had descended from slave holders, thought blacks had been happy to be enslaved and fortunate to be given the opportunity to accept Jesus Christ as their personal savior.
When Robert Gates arrived in Aggieland some three decades later, the vestiges of racism still lingered. First, Gates had to explain a student organization’s “Affirmative Action Bake Sale,” at which minority students were given preferential prices for cookies, ostensibly to express white outrage at programs that gave historically discriminated against ethnic groups an opportunity to catch up in college admissions and employment. Then, just before he left to succeed the failed Donald Rumsfeld as Defense Secretary, Aggie racism once again drew national attention, this time when students released a blackface video on YouTube.
In the interim, Gates had to decide how to deal with a Supreme Court decision that occurred shortly after he became president, a ruling on a University of Michigan case that allowed limited use of affirmative action in college admissions. Undoubtedly to placate the conservative donor base, Gates took A&M in a different direction than the state’s other flagship campus, the University of Texas. While the Longhorn admissions office embraced the restored freedom to use limited racial preferences, the Aggies eschewed race-based admissions and instead tried enhanced minority recruiting and scholarship offers. Nevertheless, Gates found himself defending his decision from Aggies who thought the additional financial aid to minorities would come at the expense of elevated tuition for white students.
His successor, Else Murano, recently responded to adverse publicity generated by an Aggie group that threw eggs at a caricature of Barack Obama. A black Aggie football player stepped into the line of fire to prevent the spectacle from continuing. Murano chose an open letter to students, which admitted that such protests were within the scope of the students’ constitutional rights but called on students to behave with discretion. Even such a muted admonition drew criticism from the most right-wing of Aggie pundits. When the local newspaper criticized the egg throwers, letters to the editor and on-line commentators defended the studetns.
Robert Gates cannot be blamed for the fact that Texas A&M remains a bastion of conservatism for white elites who seem to regard the degradation of majority privilege as a loss of rights. However, in order to get along with well-healed donors who clung to the old Southern way of life, Gates undoubtedly made many compromises that will influence how history evaluates his presidency. The young Ags who pull stunts like this grow up in old Aggie families, where their attitudes are formed. Gates did damage control, but nothing substantial to change this aspect of Aggie culture.
Robert Gates was part of the Aggie family, as Director of the George Bush School of Public Affairs, on that fateful morning in November of 1999, when Aggie Bonfire fell, killing 12 students and seriously injuring 27 more. He observed Ray Bowen’s struggles to come to terms with the future of the tradition, which had existed since 1909, and his predecessor’s gut-wrenching decision not to continue it in the final year of the Bowen presidency.
When Gates took command of Texas A&M in 2002, he seemed determined to reevaluate Aggie Bonfire and make a final decision on its future. But lawyers for the Texas Attorney General’s office and the TAMU System intervened, convincing Gates to maintain the status quo while the families of the victims litigated. Gates made a few minor adjustments to appease Bonfire advocates, such as lifting the moratorium on sales of Bonfire memorabilia, but on the major issue of whether the tradition would live, he demurred.
It was a tremendous missed opportunity. If Gates had decided to bring Bonfire back to campus, which some believe he could have done despite the objection of the state’s lawyers, it would have been a stroke that would have electrified the Aggie family like no event since Jackie Sherrill’s 12th Man Kickoff Team in the 1980s. It probably would have earned Gates that statue on campus.
Meanwhile, the lines hardened. A group of determined students and alumni consolidated a series of off-campus bonfires into the organization that has now successfully burned Student Bonfire for seven consecutive years. Three years ago, they ran afoul of Brazos County authorities with regard to a county-wide burn ban during drought conditions. However, the last three off-campus Bonfires, held in neighboring Robertson County, have transpired without a hitch. Alcohol and horseplay seem to have vanished in the absence of university supervision, and the new stack is professionally engineered.
If Texas A&M were to try to reclaim the tradition, it would face opposition from both sides of issue, from Aggies and community institutions who think that immature college students building multi-story bonfires is too dangerous an undertaking, to those who continue to build the off-campus Bonfire and wish to do so without meddling university supervision.
On potentially the most emotional issue of his university presidency, Robert Gates punted.