The Scientific Activist

Almost a year after Robert Gates left his post as President of Texas A&M University to become Secretary of Defense, the A&M Board of Regents has announced a successor: Elsa Murano, who since 2005 has served as Vice Chancellor of Agriculture for the Texas A&M System and Dean of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. The Board of Regents announced on Friday that Murano was the sole finalist for the position, and although Texas state law stipulates that 21 days must pass before the offer becomes official, she is effectively the new President of Texas A&M University.

Despite the fact that Texas A&M was able to appoint a new head football coach, Mike Sherman, just three days after Dennis Franchione resigned following a stunning victory over the University of Texas on November 23rd (capping an otherwise unimpressive tenure at A&M), interim president Eddie Davis has overseen the university for almost a year as an exhaustive search took place for someone able to fill Gates’ very big shoes (speaking figuratively, of course). The process began with the formation of a search committee of faculty, students, administrators, and regents, and it has been cloaked in secrecy throughout. After several months of work, in which the committee considered over 140 potential future presidents, in September of this year the committee gave its three recommendations to the Board of Regents. Although the names of these three recommendations have not been released, all were current sitting university presidents. Although Elsa Murano was considered early in the search, she was not one of the final recommendations. After one of the nominees withdrew, though, the Board of Regents expanded the search to include Murano, among others. Although supportive of Murano, the A&M faculty are not particularly happy with this perceived disregard from the Board of Regents.

Although our time at A&M overlapped slightly, I didn’t personally know Murano. Impressions of her seem to be pretty positive, and she has a reputation as an effective administrator. She’s coming to the position as a faculty member (a plus), and she has a background in science (a big plus at a major research university, although her background is in food safety, an applied science). She served as the Under Secretary of Agriculture for Food Safety during the first half of George W. Bush’s presidency, where she caught some flack from consumer groups for ties to industry, particularly in regards to her support of food irradiation. However, I haven’t seen any evidence that she acted improperly in any way, and the concerns appear overblown. One impression I did have of Murano at A&M was that she was possibly a little too gung ho in her Aggie-ness, but that just puts her in line with a large portion of A&M’s student body. Although it’s not a characteristic I see particularly as a positive, it’s certainly not a deal breaker.

Quite a bit has been made of Murano being the first female (and first Hispanic) President of Texas A&M. In the year 2007, I would argue that this doesn’t carry the amount of significance that it would have a decade or two ago. On the other hand, at a university that didn’t admit women until 1963, this isn’t a trivial manner. I say good for the Board of Regents on that account, although I doubt that these factors played a significant role in their decision. Also, given the political climate at A&M, stressing these aspects too much might be counterproductive.

During his tenure at A&M, Gates took bold steps to improve the university’s standing, bringing in new money, talent, and diversity. It appears that the selection of Murano was based primarily on her strengths as an effective administrator. The best thing she could do would be to continue Gate’s initiatives at A&M and govern in a similar style. Gates was well-liked by the faculty, and he seemed to put a lot of weight on faculty concerns in making his decisions as President. Based on her background as a faculty member, many at A&M are optimistic that she’ll continue this trend. Even if the Board of Regents largely ignored the A&M faculty in making its decision, hopefully Murano will listen to faculty in formulating her actions as President.