by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro
Commentary of the Day - June 23, 2000: Redemption at Texas A&M.
The Irascible Professor has been highly critical of the administration at Texas A&M University for failing to exercise appropriate supervision over students working on the construction of the bonfire stack. Traditionally, Texas A&M students have constructed and burned this oversized bonfire before the annual football game between the Texas A&M "Aggies" and the University of Texas. Over the years the bonfire grew to a 5 story, 2 million pound structure of rough logs, that was built primarily by students without the use of either professional design staff or professional construction staff. University supervision of this student enterprise was limited. In 1999 the sudden collapse of the stack during construction killed 12 students and injured many more.
The recent report of the special commission that studied the 1999 collapse cited several lapses in safety procedures and the lack of appropriate supervision of students by university staff as a major contributing factor to the deaths and injuries in the 1999 collapse, and to a historical accident rate for past bonfire construction that far exceeded the national average accident rate for similar construction. In response to the report Texas A&M president Ray Bowen has announced a two-year moratorium on bonfires while procedures are put in place to ensure that the bonfire can be constructed safely. Bowen's press release also summarized a series of steps that would help to ensure that this would happen.
Many of these steps represent major changes from past traditions. For example, the design of the bonfire stack will be done by licensed professionals, students will no longer cut logs for the stack, students will not be allowed to work from midnight to dawn, and the height of the stack will be limited to a single stand of logs. In addition, the construction site will be fenced and monitored by licensed professionals at all times.
Bowen also emphasized in his statement that Texas A&M is firmly committed to raising its academic standards and placing greater emphasis on academics. Indeed the university hopes to compete with major U.S. research universities within the next two decades. President Bowen's willingness to institute far-reaching changes in the bonfire tradition signifies that Texas A&M has reached the point where it is no longer bound blindly to traditions that operate to the detriment of academics.
Although by retaining the bonfire in modified form, Bowen has not gone as far as some members of the Texas A&M community would have preferred. He, nevertheless, has taken a courageous step given the strong sentiment among students and alumni to leave the bonfire tradition unchanged.
In the view of
the Irascible Professor, leaving the tradition unchanged would have meant
that the students who died, died as a sacrifice to stupidity. Instead,
by taking bold steps to change the tradition president Bowen has helped
to redeem his university. He has shown that it is capable of taking
rational steps in the face of overwhelming evidence that change was needed.
© 2000 Dr. Mark H. Shapiro - All rights reserved.