Texas A & M, founded in 1876, is one of those educational entities a certain kind of Texan recoils from praising too lavishly—the kind of Texan who went to the rival University of Texas and grew up deriding the Aggies as abrasive bumpkins.

Traditions, masticated like a chaw of first-rate ’baccy, are hard to put aside—at least until the liberals seek to join in the fun, upon which the preservation of bumpkinhood becomes an object of  missionary purpose.  A University of Texas graduate, that is to say, can feel the duty of speaking out against ongoing efforts to make Texas A&M over in the image of—well, who knows; maybe the University of Texas.

Every state is entitled to at least one politically incorrect (generally speaking) university.  In President Bush’s home state, that means A&M—the home of his father’s presidential library.  Thirty-five years ago, the Aggies wouldn’t let in girls.  Everybody belonged to the Corps of Cadets and earned a commission on graduation.  Aggies, by tradition, stood throughout football games.  They kissed their dates when the team scored.  Seniors wore riding boots and carried sabers. They hailed primarily from farms and small towns; they brought to campus the entirely laughable (it was argued against them) values of those venues.  They were squares, in short, in the eyes of the sophisticates who attended college in Austin.  “Aggie jokes” (mostly derived from Polish ones) abounded in public and private discourse.

Then came modernity.  To fast forward, Texas A&M is currently considering for president two affirmative-action proponents.  So far as I can tell, that’s why they are candidates—because they believe in rigging the admissions process to favor women and nonwhites.  A third candidate, former CIA director Robert Gates, provides, you might say, ideological balance.

The man who was, in some sense, the likeliest possible candidate didn’t make the cut.  That would be Phil Gramm, who steps down from the U.S. Senate next year and reportedly had desired the university presidency.  There could have been symmetry here: A&M was the launching pad for Gramm’s political career.  Teaching in the economics department, he attracted attention and political support through his outspoken support of  free-market economics.  Though Gramm attended the University of Georgia, he sold himself as an Aggie.  The Aggies—conservative to the core—loved the recognition.

But you know modernity—always requiring new sacrificial victims.  Gramm may be the latest.  Without evincing a commitment to become the next Cal-Berkeley or University of Wisconsin, Texas A&M is moving mincingly away from its politically incorrect past.  Women have gone to school there since the 60’s.  The Corps of Cadets today comprises a distinct minority of students.  The spirit-building Aggie bonfire has been on hold for a couple of years because of safety concerns you might suppose could be resolved in a considerably shorter period of time.  Politically correct faculty have tried, mostly unsuccessfully up to now, to overhaul the supposedly dated curriculum.  A&M’s 2020 plan—which aims at putting the school into the top tier of public universities—obviously contradicts past views of mission and purpose.

What is the anticipated loss here?  Is there one?  It depends.  An “agricultural and mechanical” college is almost a freakish concept in higher education, conjuring up visions of students with non-matching socks and toothpicks dangling from lower lips.  A modern university clearly must be modern.  But how modern, and by whose definition?  There is the danger, in every human enterprise, of gaining the world and losing your soul.  A federal appeals-court decision prevents taxpayer-funded universities in the Southwest from tailoring admissions standards to recruit faculty and students in accordance with skin color or sex.  The presidential candidacies of two who tout their affirmative-action credentials show what is going on behind closed doors at A&M.

The apparent rejection of Gramm’s candidacy may be symbolic as well as substantive.  A man closely and rightly identified with ideological combat just can’t, it would seem, be qualified to lead A&M into the new century.  Or is it just the particular side on which Gramm has fought—the conservative side—that troubles some of the decision makers?

Politicians don’t routinely become university presidents, though some do.  (Former Oklahoma governor and senator David Boren, at the University of Oklahoma, comes to mind.)  But university presidents have become exquisitely political; mostly, that identification is with the left, not the right.

Gramm—there seems no other way to view it—got dumped on as a potential encumbrance, in modern academia, to modern Aggie aspirations.  A conservative economics department, such as the one in which Gramm served, was bad enough.  But a conservative state university—horrors!  No bonfire, and no Phil Gramm.  Maybe UT’s disdainful students were right all along: Aggies ain’t quite got it together.