Can Texas A&M Really Change?

There's a fantastic cover article in this month's Texas Monthly by Paul Burka about Texas A&M president Robert Gates and his mission to change the university. Gates, a former director of the Central Intelligence Agency, is aiming to bring "Texas A&M university's unique but not always admired culture into the modern era and remaking the way the world views Aggieland--and the way Aggieland views the world."

Gates is instigating change across the board at A&M - from lessening the control of the once all-powerful administrators (empowering faculty in their stead) to the menus in the campus eateries (now with Soul Food Fridays).

None of what I'm writing is a joke, mind you. Gates takes his mission seriously, and there are measurable target goals well within reach of the university. Texas A&M wants to be ranked in the top fifty public universities in the country by 2008, and it appears to be well on its way to achieving that goal. They've hired nearly 350 new faculty, are pouring money into liberal arts and graduate studies, and implementing diversity enrollment programs across the state.

To those of us who value institutes of higher education for more than just their athletics, this is an impressive feat, and a welcome one. But Burka's article isn't just about the university meeting academic goals. The university badly needs a makeover of its public perception. Those of us on the outside of Aggieland often caricature it as a stone age bastion of excessive traditionalism, all while those inside Aggieland revere the traditions of the Aggie spirit so dearly that they have a deeply held fear of change of any kind.

Even in our little college football blogosphere, you can get a sense of this very real tension. At Bear Meat, a Baylor University athletics blog, an author posted an edgy, satirical post comparing Texas A&M to North Korea.

Whether you think the post is over the top in its jokes is beside the point; less dramatic caricatures of the university's culture are commonplace. Aggies couldn't care less how they're viewed by outsiders, of course. For Texas A&M, it's the family that counts, and there may not exist a stronger, larger family in all of the country. To be an Aggie is, quite literally, to be a member of a gigantic family of millions.

It's going to be interesting to see the degree to which Gates is successful in his drive to change the university's image. As a teasipping outsider, it's somewhat difficult to envision the change penetrating my deep-rooted perception of the university's culture. Just today, in thumbing through the TexAgs website, I saw a poll asking Aggies to vote on what ESPN personality Lee Corso should wear to pick Texas A&M on the Gameday set on Saturday morning. Oddly, a plurality of respondents said that he and Herbstreit should "saw varsity's horns off."

I'm no expert on Aggie traditions, but in trying to figure out what "sawing varsity's horns off" meant, I learned that it's a song the Aggies sing (locked arm to arm, swaying) right after the Aggie War Hymn. Presumably, the physical manifestation of this on the Gameday set would involve Corso and Herbstreit swaying and singing the song. (I would hope it's not an actual sawing off of longhorns.) Assuming it's the song that's being referenced, it seems like an odd choice, as the song is about the University of Texas, making it not just a curious decision for the Aggie faithful, but an emblematic one. Quite literally the morning after I read this interesting article about how Texas A&M's president intends to change the Aggie culture, I saw an eye-rolling poll in which the fanbase votes to have the Gameday crew sing an anti-Texas song prior to a football game against the University of Oklahoma.

The point is that I thought to myself, "Typical." And while the remaking of the college's academic reputation may not seem to have much to do with how fans talk about the football team, they aren't nearly as separate as you might first think. Paul Burka's article gets into the details of brand management, and one thing about effective brand management is that the brand is supposed to reflect what your company/university is really, truly about. And when outsiders see Aggies do backwards things like the aforementioned poll selection, they aren't nearly as willing to consider an alternative view of the university culture as a whole. Behavior like this makes Aggies look like a group that's still insecure about its standing. It's striking because it occurs in the midst of, and in contradiction to, this revolution within other aspects of the culture of Texas A&M.

The culture war so many Aggies seem hell bent on fighting with "teasipper" types is precisely the battle Robert Gates thinks Aggies need to give up to take a step forward in this modern world we live in. And it's not that Aggies need to reject their rich and unique tradition so much as they need to reform it. There appears to exist a very real opportunity for Texas A&M under the leadership of Robert Gates, but I suspect that it will take more than just a reformation of the graduate programs and so forth to fully achieve the mission. It must go further - to the very core of the Aggie family - to truly remake the way the world views Aggieland - and Aggies view the world.

--PB--

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