Saturday, November 11, 2006

Agent of Change

In the midst of a large (by Texas A&M standards) anti-racism rally last Wednesday, I received a call indicating that Donald Rumsfeld had stepped down and Texas A&M University President Robert Gates had been tapped to replace him. Emotions in the crowd ranged from despair at the loss of a perceived ally in effecting lasting change to hope at the prospect of helping to select another progressive leader.

While Dr. Gates confirmation is by no means a done deal, his message to the Aggie community indicates some certainty on his part that he will be headed to Washington D.C. Dr. Gates history with the CIA during the Iran-Contra affair is likely to be an issue of contention during Senate confirmation hearings. Journalist Robert Parry of seems to be the most vocal critic of Dr. Gates' appointment. Parry has advanced speculation about Gates' politicization of intelligence during his tenure at the CIA in his bookSecrecy & Privilege, repeatedly at, and recently on the Democracy Now radio show. Parry's accusations about Gates' involvement in weapon sales in Iran and Iraq and concocting evidence in pinning the 1981 assassination attempt of Pope John Paul II on the Soviets are troubling, and my hope is that the allegations will be addressed front-on and wither substatiated and dismissed. Alternatively, Fred Kaplan at has indicated that Dr. Gates is "the best man for Rummy's job". In this insightful editorial Kaplan makes the case for Dr. Gates as a thoughtful academic and, Parry's allegations notwithstanding, nonpartisan. Where Parry conflates Dr. Gates’ culpability with that of William Casey, Kaplan shows the two had a tenuous partnership. Kaplan calls Gates’ withdrawal from the confirmation process”ironic” after his role in the Iran-Contra affair became an issue when Bush41 first nominated him to the top CIA post in 1991:
Gates had risen through the agency's analytical ranks—he joined the agency as a Soviet specialist in 1966, straight out of college—and he would have been the first CIA director to have done so. Like many analysts, he distrusted the covert-ops branches. Although he was Casey's trusted chief of staff and then his deputy director, he did not, for instance, share his boss's enthusiasm for the Nicaraguan contras and their war against the Sandinistas; he saw it as a diversion from more-serious threats.

At the very least, Parry’s allegations are complicated by Kaplan’s read. Given the political milieu in which these accusations are based and which they now surface, it seems what is being politicized is Dr. Gates’ ties to the Bush family.

The politics of Dr. Gates’ tenure at Texas A&M have been eclectic, not partisan. Dr. Gates has lived up to the title he gave himself, "agent of change": he has overseen the creation of the Vice President of Diversity position as well as made meaningful connections with the Black Former Student Network and Hispanic Former Students; his plan for eliminating race and legacy in admissions decisions, coupled with targeted recruitment and retention programs have resulted in marked gains in the ethnic/racial diversity of our incoming students; his emphasis on staying true to Texas A&M’s legacy as a land-grant institution and our charge to serve the population of the state of Texas resulted in the creation of the Regents’ Scholars program which gives significant funding and support for first-generation college students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds; he has been vocal about preserving the traditions at Texas A&M that make it a “unique American institution” including a significant strengthening of the Corps of Cadets; he has repeatedly emphasized the role that Aggies are expected to play in serving their communities, especially in referencing Washington Monthly’s recognition of Former Students contributions to the nation; at a time when most colleges and universities were slashing budgets and circling the wagons, Dr. Gates announced the ambitious plan to hire 400+ new faculty and enhance the undergraduate experience at Texas A&M. Dr. Gates is a consensus-builder, and this further complicates the reading that those like Parry wish to make of his tenure at the CIA. This Washington Post editorial throws more cold water on allegations that Dr. Gates is a partisan hack:
Former senator Sam Nunn (D-Ga.), whose questioning of Gates in 1987 led to the withdrawal of his nomination to be CIA director, praised his "ability to work closely with Congress on a bipartisan basis" and said he "has a well-deserved reputation on both sides of the aisle for competency and integrity."

No doubt the details of Dr. Gates’ tenure at the CIA contain passages that would give anyone pause. If the recent elections indicate a shift back toward more open and accountable government, we should have every opportunity to investigate and have each explained. Given the service that Dr. Gates has performed for Texas A&M and the humanity that he showed in the process, I pray that the process is not vicious or vindictive.

Dr. Gates: good luck and God bless!

Thursday, November 09, 2006

"The Aggies are We"

Like many other Aggies, I was appalled this week to learn of the hateful video posted online by Texas A&M students. Ironically, I heard about the video at the close of a presentation I was doing for the African American Student Leadership Institute on Dr. Cornel West’s book Race Matters. Our discussion centered on the problems of pervasive poverty and nihilism in the African American community, how black people are figured in the popular American cultural imagination, and how we need visionary, moral, and race-transcending leaders to effect lasting social change.

The student leaders who have lent their voices to the protest of the offending video and underlying cultural illness at Texas A&M should be applauded for living up to the high standard set by Dr. West. That several students have responded that they are offended at the insinuation that they are complicit with a racist power structure demonstrates, perhaps even more significantly than the video incident, that a culture of passive racism does thrive on our campus. It is the prerogative of white privilege to insist that racism is not a highly salient factor of existence for persons of color on our campus.

Failing to recognize hate speech and action in one’s environment is deplorable enough, but to insist on one’s one failed reading of that environment crosses the line into rhetorical violence by stripping those who are directly affected by such hateful acts of the right to describe their own lives. That a person in blackface was the touchstone for this conversation is no accident since the racist stereotypes of black persons as lazy, stupid, and sexually aggressive were codified in blackface shows of the antebellum period.

We as Aggies need to realize that so long as we allow the problem of lingering hate and racial ill-will to be stylized as a problem of “us vs. them,” we cannot hope to make any progress. We have to be willing to be personally offended when hateful speech or actions are directed at any member of our community, and we must not settle for merely commiserating. The Aggie ideals of Honesty, Integrity, and a love and respect for Community must inform a constructive and healing response.