Forum Spin Doctor
JUAN A. LOZANO
HOUSTON - As president of Texas A&M University, Robert Gates' goals were to increase diversity, improve academic programs and undertake the most ambitious construction program in school history.
The former CIA director, who was nominated Wednesday to replace Donald Rumsfeld as secretary of defense, has mostly achieved those goals, many people associated with the university said. Some critics, however, said he could have done more to improve diversity.
"We are going to miss him," said Porter Garner III, executive director of the Association of Former Students. "He came here not so much as an administrator but someone who wanted to learn, understand and benefit students, faculty and staff."
In a letter to university supporters announcing his decision to pursue the defense post, for which he still must be confirmed, Gates said work is under way or in planning for more than $500 million in construction. Some 90 percent of that construction is on new academic facilities, he said.
Over the past three years, freshman enrollment has increased by 77 percent for black students at the main College Station campus, located about 100 miles northwest of Houston.
It increased 59 percent for Hispanic students and 71 percent for Asian-American students. Since 2002, enrollment of graduate black students has gone up 86 percent while it's increased 48 percent for Hispanics.
Gates said he set a goal of increasing faculty numbers by 447 over his first five years as president. By September, the university had added 346.
More than a third of new faculty hires have been women and the faculty is now 21 percent nonwhite, up 18 percent from last year and 15 percent in 2002.
Gates said A&M has made significant progress in the area of diversity. "All of the initiatives of greatest importance are well under way and on an assured path to completion," he wrote in the letter to supporters.
Rogelio Saenz, a sociology professor, credited Gates with providing funding to set up scholarships for first-generation college students and diversifying the graduate student population.
But he said A&M still has much work to do in retaining minority students. About 74 percent of A&M's population of more than 45,000 students is white.
"We continue to be an extremely white institution," he said. "It's one thing to recruit them, but you have to provide them an environment where they are going to be comfortable here."
Saenz pointed to a recent controversy in which a video was posted online by A&M students featuring a person with shoe polish on his face, acting like a slave.
William L. Perry, the university's vice provost, called the incident an exception to the environment on campus.
"It's a work in progress but we've made great strides under his leadership," he said of Gates. "He's galvanized us and we have great momentum moving forward."
Nic Taunton, the student body president, credited Gates with listening and responding to student opinions. He also called Gates a man of vision.
"He sees the big picture and then finds the best way to get there," he said.