Outgoing A&M president Loftin imparts philosophy of student connection
Published: Sunday, December 8, 2013
Updated: Wednesday, December 11, 2013 16:12
While University President R. Bowen Loftin will step into the position of University of Missouri Chancellor on Feb. 1, the story of his career in higher education is in many ways a tale of give and take with Texas A&M University.
Loftin’s relationship with Texas A&M started when he was a 16-year-old junior at Navasota High School and he decided to pursue a career as a college professor.
“I’m not sure exactly how to characterize it, how it came to me, but I decided that I really wanted to be a college professor,” Loftin said. “That’s what I really wanted to do. I had no background with it — my parents never went to college, nobody in my family went to college before I came along — so this is not something I knew much about.”
He knew his rank as a National Merit Finalist would enable him to find a quality school for his undergraduate education and he knew he wanted to stay in his home state, so he said he applied to the University of Texas, A&M and Rice.
All three Universities accepted him with a full-tuition scholarship, but Loftin said he soon discovered this would not cover all of his expenses.
“I learned right away that this was going to be a problem, because we had no money in my family,” Loftin said. “Even though I had a scholarship to cover tuition, it took a lot more money to cover the cost of fees, books, room and board — things like that.”
Loftin said he began thinking about starting school a year later in order to work and raise money, but Texas A&M officials wrote back to Loftin individually and said a former student, who died a few years earlier, left money in his will for an endowed scholarship for a physics major like Loftin.
“So I went from a tuition-only scholarship to a full ride,” Loftin said. “So A&M became a real choice — the only choice, really, from a financial standpoint, but from a compatibility point of view, too.”
Having visited what Loftin described as the “crowded and less-than-friendly” University of Texas campus and the beautiful but residence hall-centered Rice campus, Loftin said he found the Texas A&M campus to be the most compatible.
While a college of 10,000 students isn’t big by today’s standards, attending such a college in 1967 was a big step for Loftin, who came from a high school of 300 students.
“I’ll never forget my first chemistry exam, the class average was 15 out of 100, and I made a 25, I think, on the test,” Loftin said. “I didn’t want to feel good or bad about that. It was a hard course, but it was a very challenging experience for me, coming here from a small place.”
The transition to administration
While Loftin’s aspiration was to become a professor, somewhere in his 40 years of higher education experience he unwittingly began the transition to administrative positions. The shock of the shift hit him when he was conducting research at the University of Houston with 45 people under his direction.
“It was a slow thing — it wasn’t like it was overnight,” Loftin said. “Slowly, I grew into that different role. I realized I was becoming more administrator than I was a pure faculty member.”
While Loftin has been a teacher and researcher for most of his life, he hit a point in his career when he had to make a choice. Loftin said he had two options — go back to his roots as a professor or continue down the path of expanding research through an administrative route.
“I thought about it quite a bit and I loved what I was doing, teaching and mentoring students, but also I enabled people to do what they wanted to do,” Loftin said. “I had a lot of junior faculty working with me by then, a lot of people who had their Ph.D.s were working as research associates, getting ready to become professors later on and they all depended on me for money and for guidance. So I was doing much more day-by-day leadership and mentoring the people at that level than I was actually teaching classes.”
Ultimately, Loftin went to Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va., in 2004 and took on the position of executive director of the Virginia Modeling, Analysis and Simulation Center, before leaving in 2005 to become Vice President and CEO at Texas A&M University at Galveston.
Spending two days per week in College Station and five in Galveston, Loftin said the seaside microcosm of Aggieland was a nice place to grow as an administrator. He said his time in Galveston gave him the background he needed to become University president.
“All of the pieces of the job here are there, with one exception — athletics,” Loftin said. “Everything else is just the same, except the scale. It was a good place to train myself. I learned a lot about running a University campus because as a faculty member, researcher and administrator, I never really worried about student affairs, the physical plant, the police force, the book store, the dining halls. When I became the CEO down there, everything was on my plate.”
At Galveston, Loftin was able to simply walk around campus to get all of the information he needed to do his job well.
“You could walk across campus in five minutes,” Loftin said. “Can’t do that here.”
On June 15, 2009, Loftin made a step up as interim president at A&M and was named president eight months later.
The switch to the SEC
While the Galveston branch of Texas A&M had a varsity sailing team and a varsity rowing team, Loftin said one of the most difficult elements of the University presidency to balance at first was athletics.
“That’s what took up most of my time here initially, just to grapple with athletics,” Loftin said.
Loftin said one of the most gratifying moments of his presidency was the Board of Regents’ approval of the move to the Southeastern Conference.
“It all started back in 2009, when I became interim president,” Loftin said. “It kind of grew and grew, and in 2010 we made an attempt to make it happen then, which did not work out. That was because the board was not unified about it and there were a lot of political things happening in the state that led us not to make it happen that particular time around.”