Saturday, January 14, 2012

Gender Desegregation: Earl Rudder and When Texas A&M Became Co-Ed

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." The passage describes the sometimes hysterical and angry reaction provoked when A&M began to admit women.

Only a person with solid footing as an Aggie, as a soldier, and as a patriot would be able to carry off the reforms necessary in order to save Texas A&M from stifling traditions that threatened the future of the college. Such a person came in the person of Earl Rudder, who was ready to leave politics after two years as state Land Commissioner. As journalist Paul Burka put it:

He was Old Aggie to the core, class of ’32, an industrial education major, an ex-football coach, a general, and a World War II hero. Years later, a number of Rudder’s contemporaries would try to take credit for persuading him to open A&M’s doors to women and end mandatory Corps membership once and for all, but the reality is that it did not take a great amount of insight to see what had to be done. What it took was courage and clout – the willingness and the stature to stand up to Old Aggies – and Earl Rudder had plenty of both.

His experiences at A&M and afterward also may have given Rudder a unique ability to empathize with the students while at the same time keeping an objective distance from some of its more hidebound customs. Two decades earlier, Rudder had arrived at A&M as a “frog,” the Aggie term for transfer student. He had never been a fish and therefore had lived outside the take and give of the school’s class system. Not hazed as an underclassmen, he may not have been as patient with the literally sophomoric desire to return the favor to subsequent freshmen. His experience as a real soldier at wartime, and of witnessing comrades bleed and die on the battlefield, probably made him a little cynical of the tin soldier aspects of the Cadets. Nevertheless, he was an Aggie and respected the conservative values the institution represented.

At the time of his appointment, Texas governor Price Daniel reportedly told him to “go over there and straighten things out.” A&M’s board of directors eased in Rudder, naming him vice president in charge of the College Station campus while M.T. Harrington received the title of President. It was clear, however, that Rudder was the man of the moment. As if to announce his inevitable ascendancy, officials placed Rudder and his family in what was known as “Prexy’s Home,” the official home of A&M presidents built originally for Sul Ross during his A&M tenure in 1891. As if to underscore the challenges Rudder faced in his new position, two Brazos County women filed suit in order to gain admittance to A&M just as the new vice president was settling into his official residence.

In 1957, A&M’s Academic Council voted 49-1 that military training at the school should be optional, which placed them in direct conflict with the school’s Board of Directors, which narrowly favored compulsory training by a 5-4 vote. The Battalion published editorials supporting both optional military training and coeducation, but this did not reflect majority opinion on campus. Reprisals for taking a dissenting view increased in severity. The Cadet Corps “busted’ the editor of the Battalion a rank for an editorial supporting coeducation, while one another student favoring the admission of women suffered injuries when an unknown assailant tossed an ammonia bomb in his dorm room.

Rudder rarely visited the A&M campus after his graduation, so he probably did not fully appreciate how explosive the issues surrounding the Cadet Corps and women students had become. When he arrived to take the office of vice president, author John A. Adams notes, “he was surprised to find an air of unrest among the cadets, as well as discontent among a scant number of non-regs (civilian students), faculty and staff. His concern quickly turned to to the Corps . . . [and] he was blunt about the dissension in the ranks.” In one of his first speeches to the Cadets, Rudder placed much of the blame for the campus discontent on the class system, by which upperclassmen asserted their authority over underclassmen. “Do you want a Corps or a class system?” he asked bluntly. “We have many units instead of a Corps in many respects.”

Rudder warned the Cadets that the survival of both the Corps and the school were at stake. “The primary objective of your lives on this campus is an education,” he said. “Or, are you looking forward to privileges, authority, to prolonging for awhile indulgence in immaturity and irresponsibility to indoctrination of the young men with a philosophy of ‘take it now so you can dish it out later?’” He then shared with the cadets the appalling dropout rate among freshmen. In Air Science, the dropout rate climbed from 19.9 percent in the 1954-1955 school year to 44.4 percent in 1957-1958. In military science there had been a similar 43.4 percent dropout rate over the previous year. In the Army ROTC program, the situation was even worse, with 57 percent leaving the school before their sophomore year. “At this rate,” Rudder concluded, “The Corps will eliminate itself.”

Rudder appealed to younger students to lead the charge in reforming Cadet culture. “Part of the trouble is that we know no way to handle freshmen except the way we were handled last year,” Rudder told a gathering of sophomores. “. . . I think that this is our problem because we failed to tell you the difference between good military discipline and so-called ‘good bull.’”

The issue of the Cadets’ role in campus life, of course, entwined with the issue of admitting coeds. The coed issue seemed to have been resolved when the Texas Supreme Court refused, for a second time, to order A&M to admit women and when the state Legislature again rejected a bill making A&M coeducational. “No Coeds for Aggieland: This Time It’s For Real – So A&M Remains An All-Male Citadel,” an April 1959 headline of the Battalion, the A&M student newspaper, prematurely declared. Rudder would soon resolve the twin issues of the Cadets and coeducation in the opposite direction, but that awaited his rise to the school presidency.

As campus historian Henry Dethloff notes, the on-campus battles over the school’s identity grabbed so much attention, that the press barely noticed the announcement on June 27, 1959 that the Board of Directors had named Rudder president of Texas A&M College and Dr. M.T. Harrington had become chancellor of the A&M system, which in addition to the College Station campus included Arlington State College, Prairie View A&M and John Tarleton College. Although the new titles involved no real change of duties or alteration of Rudder’s relationship with Harrington, “Rudder’s authority, the closeness of his relationship with the Board of Directors, and his general popularity with the students, former students, faculty, and staff perceptibly increased.”

After his official inauguration on March 26, 1960, he “faced the difficult task of binding the wounds and quieting the tumult raised over the past two years, while steering Texas A&M ahead in its academic development.” Some greeted his mission of reform with skepticism, accusing him of holding statewide political ambitions. Others doubted that an “Old Aggie” of his austere military manner could engineer the campus makeover needed to secure A&M’s future. But, as Dethloff observes, ”Rudder was a fighter who never quit anything until it was finished. As many have said since, he turned out to be the right man in the right place at the right time.”

Rudder and the rest of the Aggie administration moved cautiously. The Board of Directors launched four different studies evaluating the school’s programs and policies in preparation for its decennial report to the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, the body that would approve or withdraw accreditation. In 1961, Rudder charged a Committee on Aspirations, composed of faculty and staff members to consider the following questions: 1) What kind of graduate and citizen should A&M College produce? 2) What should be the A&M mission for the next 15 years? 3) To what level of research, teaching and other services should A&M aspire? 4) What should be A&M’s size and scope by 1976?

The aspirations committee, in its 1962 report, recommended establishment of a tenure process in order to bring the college in line with national standards and to attract higher quality faculty. With tenure, the college should provide higher faculty and staff salaries, including yearly raises and merit pay. The college’s library must be improved, the report said, and a graduate school overseen by a dean should be established. Faculty also needed improved benefits such as better health insurance coverage, and a more generous retirement program. The administration should also seek alumni support to established endowed chairs in college departments. The committee also declared that, “the name of the institution should be changed to foster and maintain a university image.”

More controversial was the report’s support for the admission of women and a call for compulsory military training to be replaced by a voluntary program, charging that the activities and duties of the Corps formed a distraction from academic excellence for many students. “In housing, feeding, and recreation of students, the military emphasis has limited the true pursuit of scholarship and the development of an environment which will contribute to this scholarship,” the report said. In addition to making the Corps voluntary, the committee urged that the Corps no longer exist as a residential organization and that an adult supervisor reside in each residential unit. Knowing how deeply the Aggie community felt about the Corps, this report supposedly alarmed Rudder so much that upon reading it, he let out a “loud exclamation followed by tossing the report into the garbage can. He soon fished it out and re-read it.”

A furious reaction attended release of the Aspirations Committee Report, with some critics charging that a communist-inspired attack on the Cadet Corps had begun. “The next Legislature should investigate the “Abolish Military Training” advocates on the A&M Campus,” wrote 1957 graduate Robert W. “Bob” Rowland. “These cries closely parallel the same being uttered in such publications as ‘THE WORKER’ among others.” Rowland, charging that the A&M faculty “despises A&M past, present, and all traditions” urged that the annual Faculty Achievement Awards given annually by the Former Students Association be immediately discontinued.

The Report of the Century Council proved milder in its conclusions but reinforced the building momentum toward reform. The Century Council called for developing an institution of “university structure,” that included solid humanities, socials science and natural science programs. The Council hedged on the issue of a university name change, however, and, unlike the aspirations committee, strongly endorsed maintaining a two-year compulsory ROTC program. The 1963 self-study report submitted to the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools focused on plans for an ambitious building program, that included construction of a meteorology and oceanography building, a particle accelerator, and a cyclotron accelerator. Such projects obviously assumed an improvement and expansion of the natural science course offerings at A&M.

A last report, the Board of Director’s Blueprint for Progress, called for the school to develop “strong interdisciplinary programs in the areas of engineering and the sciences, including the planetary sciences, molecular science, biomedical engineering, energy and raw material resources, electronic data applications, and the behavioral sciences.” The board also called on A&M to “take all feasible measures to strengthen and give greater depth to studies in the humanities and social sciences in all curricula. . . [and] place greater emphasis upon graduate offerings . . .”

Taken together, these four separate internal reviews focused on different issues but pointed in one direction. To survive, A&M had to grow beyond its traditional narrow focus on engineering, agriculture and military discipline and develop credibility as a full-fledged liberal arts school. Secondly, A&M had to recruit students beyond its narrow base of white, male “native Texan[s] of middle-to-upper-class socio –economic backgrounds” and begin reaching out to non-traditional students, such as women.

The numbers made clear that A&M’s growth had not kept up with most of the other 18 state supported colleges and universities in the decade between 1951 to 1961. Overall, enrollment in Texas public institutions of higher learning nearly doubled in that 10-year period from 52,568 to 100,982. At the University of Texas, enrollment had grown approximately 37.7 percent, from 12,707 to a total of 20,396 ten years later. Texas Technological College (now Texas Tech) had more than doubled from 4,901 to 10,212. Arlington State College (now the University of Texas at Arlington) grew almost eightfold, from 1,318 to 8,318. By contrast, A&M’s enrollment figures barely budged, growing a tepid 14.8 percent, from 6,582 to 7,724.

If the enrollment figures were stagnant, the College’s public image, outside of Aggie partisans, was depressing. On September 28, 1962, Time magazine ran a highly unflattering portrait of Texas A&M, which the writers suggested stood for “Texas Athletic and Military.” Described as “100 miles from anywhere,” the article noted that “A&M has no departments of arts, classics, music or philosophy. English, history, and psychology are undistinguished. To scoffers . . . Aggies are mere ‘onion packers.’” Noting a masculine atmosphere in which “[h]earty lads skin deer in the showers, carry Volkswagens up four floors of dormitory stairs and work round-the-clock piling timber 100 ft. high for the purgative bonfire before the Wagnerian game with the University of Texas”

"Time" magazine concluded that at A&M “the prime requirement may not be scholarship, but the prime blessing is belonging.” The article strongly displeased Rudder, but he recognized the implications of such condescension from an influential national magazine. Supposedly when he read the line about A&M’s lack of philosophers, he said, “I don’t know what they are, but get me some.”

Within a year after the four internal review reports were completed, Rudder and the Aggie Board of Directors made the first of several dramatic breaks with the Aggie past. Rudder at first expressed reluctance about co-education, but his friend Lyndon Johnson, then the Vice President, apparently persuaded him that such a change was necessary to the college’s survival. The Board of Directors on April 27, 1963 agreed to admit women to A&M on a limited basis starting that June 1. Women had to not only meet the requirements faced by all prospective students, but had to be the wife or daughter of an enrolled student, staff member or faculty member, or enroll in a course of study not available at another state-supported college or university. Women could enter A&M graduate or veterinary medicine programs without restriction.

Even this limited step toward co-education sent shockwaves across the Aggie community. Board of Directors member Sterling C. Evans explained the policy changes as a matter of convenience, noting that there were now 1,800 married students on campus and that the university had experienced difficulty in the past hiring married faculty when their wives and daughters could not enroll at the school.

Rudder tried to calm Old Aggies that assuring them that the impact of limited coeducation would be minimal. “”[T]here are 254 female students enrolled at Texas A&M for the current semester,” he wrote in a November 13, 1964 letter. “. . . Females comprise about three percent of the student body this semester. I see no basis for a significant departure from this level in the near future. To my knowledge, the policy change allowing limited coeducation was not intended by the Board of Directors to be a phase in . . . plan for unrestricted coeducation.”

Such explanations did little to calm the storm. When Rudder called a meeting of the entire Corps of Cadets at G. Rollie White Coliseum, students chanting, “We don’t want to integrate”, roundly booed him. Rudder warned that without limited coeducation, A&M could lose important academic programs and students to Texas Tech, but strong resistance to the admission of women still developed.

Some Aggies feared that the delicate social fabric of the campus would be ripped apart by this change. “We’d always been equal at A&M, no matter if Daddy was a big oil man or a sharecropper,” said one alumnus. “It didn’t matter. Aggies were all wore the same clothes, ate the same food, lived in the same quarters. I was afraid all these changes would upset the fellowship.” Not all opposition to female students was so well-intentioned however. Some Cadets, with the backing of angry alumni, formed the Committee for an All Male Military Texas A&M.”

Members of the committee derisively referred to Aggies supporting co-education as “Maggies.” An ugly, bitter misogyny filled the pages of the committee’s leaflets and circulars. “We men know to appreciate, love, and honor our women, but we know what a fix Eve got us in in the garden of EDEN,” wrote 1939 graduate Gordon Wisenbaker in an open May 8, 1963 letter to Governor John Connally. “Let’s not let that happen at A&M.” An issue of the November 21, 1963 Beaumont Aggie News was filled with sexist jokes such as “BACHELOR: A ROLLING STONE WHO GATHERS NO BOSS.” The jokes were followed by an editorial comment: “MAYBE IT’S A GOOD THING MEN DON’T UNDERSTAND WOMEN. WOMEN UNDERSTAND WOMEN AND DON’T LIKE THEM.”

In a protest letter to the Board of Directors and Rudder, Warren B. Johnson, Jr., class of 1957, continued in this vein. “Who can blame freshmen for leaving when they discover how emasculated the school has become and how uncertain its future?” The Senior Committee for the Preservation of A&M suspected selfish ulterior motives behind the policy change. “”It is the opinion of many, that President Rudder has something more than just A&M at heart and that something may well be his political goal to be an official in the state government,” a committee flier suggested

Support for coeducation often proved less than egalitarian, such as the case of the Abilene ex who suggested that the presence of co-eds might improve football recruitment. The local newspaper, the Bryan Eagle, however, fully embraced the admission of women. ”The board’s action yesterday proves that the college fathers are willing to act in an objective manner not motivated by tradition for tradition’s sake . . . Texas A&M is well on it way to the excellence sought by school officials and the people of Bryan-College Station.”

The results of the A&M policy change were not as revolutionary or as apocalyptic as many expected. Gender “desegregation” turned out to be a slow and difficult process. An Aggie alumnus serving in the state Legislature, Rep. Will Smith, introduced legislation on May 7, 1963 that would have returned A&M to its all-male status. Unable to get the necessary four-fifths vote required for the bill to be considered by the full House, Smith did engineer passage of a House resolution calling for the state to provide one major all-female and one all-male university.

The week of the vote 500 Aggie students and alumni lobbied the legislators, including a delegation of young women bearing signs that read “We want Aggies, not Maggies.” Smith told the House that the Board of Directors had overstepped their authority by approving the admission policy changes without approval of the Legislature. “Thousands of former Aggies are withdrawing their support of the school because of the board’s action,” Smith said. “The only people who favor putting girls in A&M are the merchants of Bryan. They want more business.” The motion passed 99-22, with shouts of “Gig ‘em Aggies” (a traditional A&M cheer) echoing in the House chamber as green lights indicating “yes” votes flashed on the electronic voting board.

One supporter of the resolution was future House Speaker Bill Clayton, then the state representative from Springlake, “I am a former student, Class of 1950, and I want you to know that the majority of A&M men in my area are certainly opposed to your views and the views of the Board of Directors,’ Clayton wrote in a November 25, 1964 letter to John Lindsey, president of the Association of Former Students, who supported the Board’s move. Senator William T. Moore, long an advocate of co-education, responded to Will Smith’s actions in the House by introducing a resolution in the state Senate supporting the A&M Board of Directors, but it failed to pass.

In any case, co-education went at a snail’s pace. Twelve women applied for admission to A&M within two days of the policy change. The college accepted two women, both wives of faculty members, for regular admission in May 1963, the first female day students accepted at the college since the height of the Depression, in 1933, when 11 women had been accepted under the school’s “hardship” provisions. By September, 150 women attended day classes. A&M did little, however, to make the women feel welcome. Few buildings on the campus had women’s restrooms and the first dorm rooms for women did not open until 1972.

By 1965, however, most students already expressed their support for coeducation and other proposed reforms on campus. On February 25 of that year, an on-campus poll of about 25 percent of the entire student body indicated that about 47 percent of students favored unlimited coeducation, and another 11 percent favored limited coeducation. As expected, the bulk of opposition came from the Cadet Corps. About 55 percent of Cadets opposed any degree of coeducation. Fifty-four percent of students participating in the poll said they supported making Corps membership non –compulsory.

Nevertheless, women had a hard time feeling secure about their status at A&M. Anna Bell Harvey, one of the original 11 day students, recalled that the school required her to sign an agreement that she would withdraw from A&M if the Board of Directors reversed its decision on co-education. Sallie Sheppard, later to become A&M’s associate provost for undergraduate programs was also one of the pioneers. “I never encountered any animosity,” she said in a 1989 newspaper interview. “I heard at night there were rallies against women at A&M, But I . . . never really saw any of that.” Shepperd graduated with a degree in mathematics in 1965, the same year that the Board of Directors authorized Rudder to use his “discretion” in admitting women to the university. The number of women attending the university slowly increased and by 1969, the year before Rudder died, women who met the same admissions criteria as men were being admitted. In September 1971, the Board of Directors declared that, “Texas A&M University is a coeducational university admitting all qualified men and women to all academic studies on the same basis . . .”

It still took years for women to enter the campus’ remaining all-male citadels, however, such as the Corps of Cadets or the band. The Corps opened to women in 1974, but the band, and select Cadet companies such as Rudd’s Rangers, remained male-only. A group of women filed a class action suit against the university in 1979, alleging gender discrimination. Between 1978 and 1980, the Aggie band would change tempo when a company of women marched onto the football field, causing the women to be out of step. In this period, a cross was burned on the lawn of the women’s cadet dormitory; sandwiches and tobacco juice were thrown at women Cadets; dead armadillos and opossums were left in women’s rooms; gunshots were fired through a woman’s dorm window; and a bottle of flammable liquid was thrown into Cadet Anita Bowden’s residence, causing damage.

“I left A&M very bitter,” said Bowden. “I was left with a lot of hate.” Melanie Zentgraf, the lead plaintiff in the discrimination case, suffered severe harassment. A&M President Jarvis Miller publicly humiliated Zentgraf during 1980 graduation ceremonies by refusing to shake hands with her even as she was booed and hissed by other students. “I wasn’t proud of her,” Miller later said.

As of the early 1990s, only 10 percent of the A&M faculty were women, less than half the state average. Not until 1994 did a women, Brooke Leslie, become an Aggie student body president. The 1996-1997 school year marked the first time women constituted a majority of the freshmen class. Women made up 48 percent of the total student body that year. Yet sexism persisted. At A&M, policy changed faster than attitudes about gender.

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.

1 comment:

Marjorie Nicholson said...

Although I suspect that we agree on almost nothing else, I found this article to be surprisingly accurate. I was looking for your references, but did not see them. It may be that I do not know where to look - I rarely go to blogs. I was trying to show someone a news article about Jarvis Miller when I found this. Did you interview Anita Bowden?
I thought that 35 years was long enough to get over it, but after reading this, I find that it is not the case. I am still so mad that my hands are shaking.