Reprint with Note: Aggie Snake Pit Going Forward

“Aggie Snake Pit” From the Editorial Board of the Dallas Morning News (June 16, 2009)

Disarray in the administration of Texas A&M does not befit the great university that loyal Aggies typically rise to defend.

It’s impossible for many of them to defend A&M today.

President Elsa Murano’s resignation under duress drips with embarrassing irony. She was boosted into the job over three outsider candidates who, unlike her, made a search committee’s finalist list as sitting university presidents. Now, 17 months later, Murano has been squeezed out by the regime of chancellor and regents who handpicked her from her job as agriculture dean.

A&M’s board and Chancellor Mike McKinney apparently didn’t know what they were getting when they promoted her and didn’t know what to do with her afterward. This is not to indict Murano’s short tenure. This simply addresses the leadership breakdown that stewards of a legacy institution are expected to avoid.

One sub-theme is perceived string-pulling from Gov. Rick Perry, Texas’ most prominent A&M alum. Key administrators have strong ties to the governor, most notably McKinney, a former Perry chief of staff. Murano had complained of being surprised by developments within her purview. If true, that would represent meddling that no chief executive ought to tolerate.

Other moves by top administrators bordered on underhanded. McKinney mused to the Bryan-College Station Eagle recently that perhaps A&M didn’t need a president. Perhaps, he said, the job could be combined with his duties of overseeing a system of 11 universities.

The ostensible reason was saving money, though some on campus said they were unaware of a fiscal crisis that would call for such drastic action. The effect was to undermine the university president at a time she was smarting from emergence of her written job review. The Eagle obtained and published McKinney’s hand-written evaluation of Murano. It has the look of a paper that a professor graded on his way to class, with scribbles in the margins and crossed-out remarks.

Even if McKinney hit the mark with the low grades he gave her, the process deserved an effort respectful of the office.

As for Murano’s performance, her first months on the job merited her inclusion among finalists for the annual Dallas Morning News Texan of the Year feature for 2008. Accomplishments included a new program for tuition-free education to students with family income below a certain threshold.

Murano’s tenure was rocky at times, including charges of dishonestly during her clumsy hiring, unhiring and rehiring of a vice president – a former Perry classmate – whose candidacy had not been vetted by campus stakeholder groups.

But Murano’s bosses have taken personnel clumsiness to new heights, shortchanging the university mightily at a time it aims to measure up to its ambitious Vision 2020 plan. The job of A&M president must now look like a snake pit to top talent capable of leading a university of distinction.

Editor’s Note from the Texas Civil Rights Review: Sources have been quoted to the effect that a new President for Texas A&M at College Station will be named within six months’ time. But keeping that deadline is not the most important thing to the institution. What is more important is an autonomous and dignified international search that is clearly anchored from within the community at the College Station campus–a search that is spot free from even the appearance of willful shenanigans in high places.–gm

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