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The Battalion

The Student News Site of Texas A&M University - College Station

The Battalion

The Student News Site of Texas A&M University - College Station

The Battalion

Junior G Wade Taylor IV (4) covers his face after a missed point during Texas A&Ms game against Arkansas on Feb. 20, 2024 at Reed Arena. (Jaime Rowe/The Battalion)
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Members of the 2023-2024 Aggie Muster Committee pose outside the Jack K. Williams Administration Building. (Photo courtesy of Aggie Muster Committee)
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Rudder’s big battles big battles

When James Earl Rudder took the helm of the Agricultural and Mechanical College of Texas in 1959, it was an all-male military school with an enrollment of 7,000 students, most of whom were in the Corps of Cadets.
When Rudder died 10 years later, the small, agrarian school had become Texas A&M University, a coed institution of more than 15,000 students — only a fifth of whom were cadets — well on its way to becoming a world-class university offering an array of academic and research programs.
The transformation A&M underwent during the 1960s was not an accident but the result of Rudder’s vision of a great university anchored in its traditions and his courage to implement unpopular reforms, said John Adams Jr., Class of 1973. Adams has written three books on A&M’s history, including Keepers of the Spirit which documents the 125-year history of the Corps of Cadets.
“He played the leading role, and he was the only person who could do this,” Adams said. “He was an Aggie and a war hero, and he understood that A&M had to change.”
When Rudder arrived in College Station in 1958 to become A&M’s vice president, he had little experience in higher education but an impressive background. Rudder played center on the A&M football team and graduated in 1932.
Rudder, an officer in the Army Reserve, was called to active duty in 1941 and organized the Second Ranger Battalion in 1943 and commanded a pre-invasion D-Day mission at Omaha Beach to silence the German guns at the top of the hundred-foot cliffs at Normandy’s Pointe du Hoc. One of the most heralded war heroes in A&M’s history, Rudder received the Distinguished Service Cross, Legion of Merit, Silver Star, two Bronze Stars and the Purple Heart.
At the beginning of a turbulent decade that would bring about many far-reaching reforms, A&M was facing sagging enrollment numbers, low retention rates and a conflict of visions, Adams said, between those determined to keep A&M a small, all-male, agrarian school and those who believed A&M was on the fast-track to irrelevance unless it grew and expanded its scope beyond the Corps.
The two most controversial reforms were admitting women and making membership in the Corps voluntary, both of which strongly were opposed by Aggie traditionalists.
“He (Rudder) had very vocal opposition from alumni, the Board of Directors and A&M Mothers Clubs. All of these groups were extremely conservative and traditionalist and were resistant to change,” Adams said. “They told him that he was ruining the school and that `old Army had gone to hell.'”
Rudder was loudly booed at a meeting of all cadets as he attempted to explain the impact of allowing women into A&M. But despite intense opposition, the Board voted in 1963 to open enrollment to women after Board chairman Sterling C. Evans hastily convened a meeting, when he knew key opponents would not be able to attend, Adams said.
However, women did not begin to enroll in large numbers or become a part of campus life until 1972, when female dorms opened, Adams said.
Opening the school to women and making the Corps non-compulsory were just part of Rudder’s far-reaching reforms that included a building construction frenzy that would transform the campus, expansion of graduate and research programs and a greater emphasis on academics.
“It wasn’t just about letting girls in, that just happened to be the lightning rod,” Adams said.
“They (opponents) were afraid that all these changes would destroy the bedrock traditions and culture that made A&M different from other schools.”
Rudder’s greatest legacy, Adams said, is being able to initiate the reforms A&M needed without tossing aside the traditions and culture that made A&M unique.
“Rudder was a stabilizing factor, and he ensured that we wouldn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater and jettison all the things that make A&M different from every other school,” Adams said. “As an Aggie, he understood tradition and he knew that students didn’t come to A&M just for a diploma.”
Eddie Davis, Class of 1967 and president of the Texas A&M Foundation ,said Rudder’s vision and courage saved A&M from stagnation and irrelevance.
“The institution was dying. It was a small, all-male military school, and the world around it was changing. Unless you were a kid without much money, or you had some family connections, A&M didn’t have much appeal,” Davis said. “Those changes have helped make A&M what it is today, and only Rudder, an Aggie and a war hero, could have done it.”

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