When Texas A&M University President R. Bowen Loftin was a teenager, he had an epiphany that pointed him to becoming a college professor. In six months, he will get the chance to return to that dream when he steps down as president.
"This was simply the evolution of a decision to go forward with a return back to where I wanted to be when I was age 16," Loftin told the Tribune on Monday. On Friday, he announced that he was leaving his post.
After he leaves his current post in January, Loftin, who previously worked as a maritime systems engineering professor at A&M's Galveston campus, will serve as a tenured professor in A&M’s Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering in the Dwight Look College of Engineering. He will also establish an institute that an A&M release described as a state-of-the-art center dealing with “human behavioral modeling in terrorist organizations and the spread of diseases among human and animal populations."
Loftin described his decision as "one of when to do it, not what to do," and said that Friday’s announcement provides time for the administration to conduct a thorough search for his replacement.
It also comes after the completion of a number of major initiatives at Texas A&M. For example, it recently joined the Southeast Conference for athletics. The university has acquired a law school, and — as of Monday — the university officially merged with the Texas A&M Health Science Center, which will be a unit within the university.
"They are at a point where I can probably walk away from them without an problem," Loftin said. "We're not midstream anymore."
Loftin also said he felt he brought something to A&M that had been somewhat lacking: "a real focus on students."
Each June since abruptly becoming the university's interim president in 2009 — the word "interim" was removed the following year — Loftin said he would think back to when he was "principally a person who dealt with students on a personal level as their teacher, where I mentored graduate students day in and day out, where with my team I would discover new knowledge and find ways to apply it in very useful settings in the state, the nation and the world."
Loftin said the institute he will help establish is, to some extent, fashioned after the Virginia Modeling, Analysis and Simulation Center at Old Dominion University, which he led before joining A&M in 2005. He said he left there feeling like his work was unfinished. He also led an institutional center at the University of Houston earlier in his career, and said that it is a "very, very exciting thing to do."
The announcement of his departure set off rumors that Gov. Rick Perry, a proud Aggie who recently announced that he would not seek re-election, might want the gig. But Texas A&M University System Chancellor John Sharp told the Tribune on Friday that a national search would be conducted for "an academic that has the ability to influence Washington as well as Texas."
Mention of Perry as a possible university president underscores how involved he has been — or been perceived to be — in higher education governance, particularly at the state's top public universities.
In 2010, the Texas A&M University System, inspired by reforms touted by Perry, began compiling what became known as the "red and black report," detailing which professors made money — and which lost money — for the university. Loftin recalled the idea as "not the best," and noted that it was quickly withdrawn.
He shrugged off the notion that public university presidents were suffering from particularly strong political pressure.
"People believe at this moment in time, we're seeing unusual amounts of political relationships and involvement in universities," Loftin said. "But that's not a momentary thing. It's been going on for the life of these institutions. I take the long view: There are going to be times when the universities are going to be left fairly independent and times when they are not. It's the nature of the business."
President or not, Loftin said he would continue to sport a bowtie, a signature look for him at A&M. "I don't own a long tie, so I have no choice," he said. "I may not wear a tie as much as I used to, but I certainly still will wear a bowtie when I put the tie on."