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Beyond the Gates -- Part 1


Robert Gates left a lasting legacy at Texas A&M. Now, his departure has left a major task for the university. The process to find a replacement has just begun, but already, the ideals needed to lead the university are being discussed.

There is no mold when it comes to the A&M presidency. Less than half were born in Texas. The average tenure: five-and-a-half years. Some served two decades, others, two years. And still others had no experience in education before leading A&M.

There are the greats, like Lawrence Sullivan Ross.

"He had been in the Civil War," explained David Chapman with A&M's Cushing Library. "He had been a Texas Ranger. And he had been governor of the State of Texas, and therefore, was a well-known name. It would be up to him to try to go into the legislature and help raise funds."

And Thomas Walton, the school's longest service president.

"Agriculture grew a lot under Walton," Chapman said. "It continued on from the other presidents' works, but a lot of agricultural outreach of the college really expanded under his leadership."

And James Earl Rudder, the man responsible for women and minorities coming to A&M.

"It's a rather amazing feat that he was able to do two things in his presidency, and have it actually happen here, and happen, while there was opposition, fairly peacefully," Chapman said.

In all likelihood, Robert Gates will join the list of great A&M presidents, and his departure in a time of unprecedented growth makes the search advisory committee's job that much bigger.

"Because of the time we've just been through with Dr. Gates, it puts extra pressure on us, no question about that," said Doug Slack, speaker of A&M's Faculty Senate and the man heading up the 15-person advisory committee, "but I think we're up to it."

The committee members were selected by System Chancellor Michael McKinney. It is a diverse group made up of a number of women and minorities, and with a slew of backgrounds. As members will tell you, they go into this process without names in mind.

"We've got to avoid starting with names," Slack said. "We've got to start looking at characteristics and attributes of the right candidates, and that's very difficult."

So that leaves attributes like community outreach. On a yearly basis, A&M generates $1 billion for the local economy, a number that is only expected to grow.

"What would be devastating to me would be to have someone come in that pulls back from the partnerships that are developing that are going to benefit not only the university, but obviously, the community," said Royce Hickman, the president of the Bryan-College Station Chamber of Commerce and a search committee member.

Diversity continues to be a focus. Minority enrollment has seen significant growth, with over a quarter of the student population currently being minorities. But in the history of the university, there has never been a minority or female president. Is A&M ready for that?

"There might be a lot of individuals in the community that don't think that we are," said Gwendolyn Webb-Johnson, a member of the Faculty Senate and a search committee member, "but in terms of the vision of the university, the vision of the leadership here, without a doubt, I think they're ready for that."

And then there are the students, their numbers rising despite their tuition rates climbing. Unchanging, though, are the traditions, the foundation of A&M.

"We want them to hold some of the values and traditions near to their heart as we do as students," said Student Body President Nic Taunton, also a search committee member, "as well as being willing to include us in the governance of the university."

Vision, diversity and tradition -- all major ideals of the now-past president, Robert Gates, a man who will be a tough act to follow.

"We can't clone Dr. Gates," Slack said. "That DNA left town a long time ago."


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