Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Earl Rudder and the Era of "Radical Change" at Texas A&M

A Texas farm boy, James Earl Rudder became internationally famous as a D-Day hero.  A deeply conservative man who lacked the proper academic credentials, he nevertheless ruled as president of Texas A&M when the tradition-bound school underwent sweeping reforms.  Under Rudder, A&M changed its name, desegregated, admitted women for the first time, and ended the requirement that students serve in its paramilitary "Corps of Cadets."  This passage describes the deeply emotional response provoked when Rudder implemented a change in the name of the college.

Even as A&M made its rough transition to a coeducational future, however, Aggies found themselves contending with another controversy.  Almost simultaneously with a new admissions policy, the college Board of Directors and the state legislature moved ahead with long-discussed plans to change the name of the school, to replace the word “college” with “university” as part of the general campaign to enhance A&M’s public image.  A name change had been suggested by the Century Council and in the faculty Aspirations report, but action on this still caught a disoriented A&M community by surprise.

School officials knew that one again they would be trouncing on the toes of sensitive alumni.  The College Name Change Committee considered several arguments against a name change, including the fact that the “College with its present name has built up an identity in the public mind which would be lost,” that a name change might “necessitate a change in the institution’s songs, yells, ring, etc,” and, perhaps most importantly such a change would not only alienate the “support and good will” of some alumni but would stoke already high fears of further changes regarding the Corps, coeducation, and so on.

As early as 1961, some faculty members, including the Chemistry Department’s A.F. Isbell, lobbied strongly for changing the name to Texas State University.  Isbell believed that the new name not only advertised the school’s emerging status as a university, but as a top-notch state supported institution.  To Isbell, acquiring this name represented a matter of urgency. 

“It is no secret that Texas Tech would like to have its name changed to Texas State University, North Texas State would also like to adopt this name, and when the University of Houston becomes a state-supported school, it would be no surprise if this school also asks for this name,” Isbell wrote in a letter to Name-Change Committee Chair Lee Duewall.  “If one of these schools is successful in getting its name changed to Texas State University, its gain in prestige in comparison to the loss to A&M would be disastrous.  Regardless of our name, we would be regarded generally by those outside this immediate locality as no higher than the third ranking school of this state.”

Isbell argued that he found it “impossible to think of a more concise or more descriptive name than the simple Texas State University.”  Isbell argued that if “A&M” remained part of the school name, it would invite criticism since the initials would no longer stand for the limiting designation “Agricultural and Mechanical.” Instead, it would be a mere symbolic reference to a past that the newly-designated university should try to escape. “The names that would be completely unacceptable to me are such names as: Texas A&M University or simply A&M University,” he wrote.  “Such names not only fail to describe the school adequately, but more important, I believe they would make us the laughing stock of the country.  Finally, such a name would put us in company with the only other school to my knowledge which has such a name – Florida A&M University, which is a school for colored students only.” Actually, at the point Isbell’s letter was written, 10 institutions still retained “Agricultural and Mechanical” as part of their name, including Louisiana State University and Agricultural and Mechanical College and Prairie View A&M, a segregated black institution that was part of the Texas A&M system. Even if an association with black colleges made some Texans likes Isbell uncomfortable, however, his call for a completely new name gained little traction among alumni.

To Bob Layton, A&M class of 1945, “A&M” held an important metaphorical, not a literal meaning.  “It does not mean Agricultural and Mechanical College of Texas,” he wrote on January 13, 1961.  “It means a way of life found no other place in the world.  It is a factory which builds men to meet today’s challenges.  It is a heritage which has been paid for by years of hard work, and by many lives who fought to defend that heritage.”  Sentiments such as those expressed by Isbell represented nothing less than part of a communist conspiracy to Layton.  “We want the best school we can possibly have, but let’s not sell our heritage to get it,” he declared.  “The communists have vowed to take this country by 1973 without firing a shot, by destroying freedom of thought, or individualism.  Let’s not make it easy for them.  These are the real issues involved . . . Did you know that Texas A&M is one of the few major schools which does not have known ‘pink’ faculty members[?]  This is commendable.  Let’s keep it that way.”  On August 23, 1963, Layton got his wishes when the state Legislature approved changing the name of Agricultural and Mechanical College of Texas to Texas A&M University. Reformers got the “university” designation they wanted while traditionalists like Layton could celebrate that the school remained “Texas A&M” and could retain most of its old fight songs without rewrites, its traditional cheers, and the name ‘Aggies” for its sports teams.

This was still too much for Jack Gallagher of the Houston Post, who fumed in a column, “When they start tampering with the good name of Texas A&M, well they’ve overstepped their bounds . . . They’ve ruined something sacred, our song, the song that belongs not just to the Aggies, but to everyone  . .  ‘We’re the Aggies from AMC.’”

Michael Phillips has authored the following:

White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, Texas, 1841-2001 (Austin:  University of Texas Press, 2006)

(with Patrick L. Cox) The House Will Come to Order: How the Texas Speaker Became a Power in State and National Politics. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010)

“Why Is Big Tex Still a White Cowboy? Race, Gender, and the ‘Other Texans’” in Walter Buenger and Arnoldo de León, eds., Beyond Texas Through Time: Breaking Away From Past Interpretations (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 2011)

“The Current is Stronger’: Images of Racial Oppression and Resistance in North Texas Black Art During the 1920s and 1930s ”  in Bruce A. Glasrud and Cary D. Wintz, eds., The Harlem Renaissance in the West: The New Negroes’ Western Experience (New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2011)

“Dallas, 1989-2011,” in Richardson Dilworth, ed. Cities in American Political History (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2011)

(With John Anthony Moretta, Keith J. Volonto, Austin Allen, Doug Cantrell and Norwood Andrews), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips. eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume I.   (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Keith J. Volanto), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips, eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume II. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Carl J. Luna), Imperial Presidents: The Rise of Executive Power from Roosevelt to Obama  (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2013). 

“Texan by Color: The Racialization of the Lone Star State,” in David Cullen and Kyle Wilkison, eds., The Radical Origins of the Texas Right (College Station: University of Texas Press, 2013).

He is currently collaborating, with longtime journalist Betsy Friauf, on a history of African American culture, politics and black intellectuals in the Lone Star State called God Carved in Night’: Black Intellectuals in Texas and the World They Made.

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