Clash of Symbols

Ashley Thorne

On Sunday, Elsa Murano resigned from her position as president of Texas A&M University at College Station. The resignation of the “embattled president,” as the Chronicle of Higher Education calls her, seems to have been inevitable after public disputes between Murano and the chancellor of the Texas A&M system, Michael McKinney, brought her under widespread scrutiny. The system’s Board of Regents had scheduled a special meeting for yesterday, in which it was expected that Murano would be either fired or compelled to resign. But the president stepped down before she could be ousted, writing in her resignation letter that she would like to return to the faculty.  

Murano, a native of Cuba, became president of the flagship campus in 2008 after her predecessor Robert Gates left to become the Secretary of Defense under the Bush administration. Hers was not one of the three names submitted to the Board of Regents by the faculty search committee; rather, the Board (the same one that might have fired her yesterday) ignored those names and chose Murano as the “sole finalist.” Her hiring drew displeasure from the faculty, who felt that it had not been given a say in the process. But the regents defended their decision and added that Murano’s appointment had nothing to do with her sex or ethnicity.

While Murano was in office she continued to be an object of criticism. Students complained last summer after Murano offered Lt. Gen. Joseph Weber the position of vice president of student affairs before consulting student focus groups. When she heard their concerns, Murano immediately rescinded the invitation to Weber and sought student input about him. A month later she did hire Weber as the VP of student affairs. But students were unsatisfied and this spring filed a complaint against Murano “accusing her of violating the Aggie code of honor.”

Also this spring Murano was enmeshed in a conflict with the system chancellor, Michael McKinney. In February the chancellor wrote a harsh performance review of President Murano in which he rated her as a poor team player who lacks integrity. President Murano responded to the review in a letter, where she wrote that the chancellor’s accusations were “personally insulting” and not based on facts. McKinney’s review was made public this month and the press leaped at the chance to make a scandal out of the situation. McKinney then further disoriented the university when he told a reporter this month that Texas A&M was considering merging his position and that of the College Station president.

The 50,000 student university, one of the largest in the United States, was clearly shaken by the public power struggle. At least one alumnus, a major donor, is reconsidering his giving: “I cannot speak for other former students, but I can say this: it is inconceivable to me that I could continue to financially support a university whose governance has been so politicized and convoluted that its presidency is selected and dismissed with such callous disregard for due process or thoughtful community involvement,” he told The Eagle, a College Station newspaper. And since the president has resigned, the community is taking the opportunity to reflect on Murano’s role.

One major theme of these reflections is the notion that her short time at Texas A&M was historic, as she was the first woman and the first Hispanic to be president there. When she first accepted the job, she said she did so because “I had a special responsibility to show A&M's universally accepting environment to diverse people.” But was the university universally accepting, or was Murano’s appointment merely symbolic?

Henry Ortega, chairman of the Texas A&M Hispanic Network, told The Eagle,

There is a need for this university to come to grips with a little bit of growing up and become more open to the issues of diversity...We only have praise for the way that Dr. Murano has handled her assignments at the university. She has been a symbol—a breath of fresh air at A&M as far as I and the organization I represent are concerned. Our focus is the issue of diversity, and she's been very positive in promoting that.

She has been a symbol. Apparently when Murano was chosen as president, the thought of some was that she would represent diversity at A&M, not try to assert her authority. Those who supported her for her symbolism were taken aback when she actually stepped into the presidential role. One person, “Lisa,” commenting on an article in the student newspaper The Batt, put it perfectly: 

Oh yeah, we hear about diversity this and diversity that, but lets face it. A&M wants to keep the good ole' boy network going. She just didn't fit into their plans.

“David,” another commenter on the same article, wrote,

Dr. Murano was the wrong person for the job to begin with. She was focused on her agenda rather than doing what was best for the student body. Murano did not follow Gates' example about shared governance, she preferred notification governance where she told the student leaders on campus how she was going to do things. She brought a lot of bad publicity to our university over the past year, and really frustrated me when she did not fully embrace Aggie traditions. I don't think having a diverse president has anything to do with being one of the top universities in the nation.

The tradition David refers to is the Aggie yell “Beat the Hell Outta _________!” (BTHO) directed towards opposing teams. In a speech before a game against Colorado, President Murano said she thought it would be inappropriate to say “Beat the Hell Outta Colorado”; her qualms didn’t go over well with students.

Now that she has officially been replaced by an interim president (R. Bowen Loftin, head of the system’s Galveston campus), people are wondering how A&M will move forward in selecting a permanent leader. Bob Bednarz, the Faculty Senate speaker, worries that the university won’t learn from its mistake:

Eighteen months ago the regents appointed Elsa Murano, and she was not one of the finalists identified by the search committee. And now here within a year she was given a really bad evaluation and now it appears that she might be replaced, and there’s no guarantee the process will be any different than it was last time...It would seem to me that there is a danger of repeating the process again and again. Faculty are concerned about the impact this has on being able to attract good people and the reputation of the university.

But Linda Lowe, “a 2008 Texas A&M graduate who works as a communications specialist for the university’s agriculture program,” fears that the leadership will just return to the way it used to be: “Having a Latina president had put the university in a whole different light and actually made us look progressive. Now, I’m willing to bet it will go back to being run by good old boys.”

It’s hard to pretend to be what you’re not. Murano “actually made us look progressive,” but appearances can be deceiving. Texas A&M University is unique as a large public university that prides itself on conservatism, tradition, and general disdain for the politically correct slogans of the academic Left. Whereas most large state institutions have come to embrace progressive doctrines, which they see as advancing positive open-mindedness, TAMU has for the most part remained planted in its old ways. For that reason, the success of A&M’s leaders depends largely on their understanding of the “howdy” campus culture. When Murano came to be seen as the catalyst for institutional change, the mellowing of competition, and solemn reverence for “diversity,” her efforts seemed—at this university—irrelevant and out of place.

It remains unclear why exactly Murano was compelled to leave, or whether she was, in fact, characterized unfairly. She may have been a highly competent leader seeking to make changes that would have helped the school. But however that may be, this is a curious story of how a university’s experiment in diversity “symbolism” backfired. Similar backlashes may occur at other institutions that rush into a new “symbolic” hire when that hire proves incompatible with the established organizational culture.

But so long as symbolism reigns supreme, we rarely hear about such hiccups, for universities have a strong incentive to hush that kind of news: if word got out that we publicly opposed our Latina president, our commitment to diversity would be questioned.

Right now people are questioning Texas A&M’s commitment to diversity.

Texas A&M’s problems are symptoms of a type of harm that is undoubtedly happening at other campuses but that only came to the surface here because of the uniqueness of this special institution. Perhaps A&M will eventually come to blend in with its politically correct public university counterparts. But for now, the fall from grace of this symbol will be symbolic in and of itself.

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