In this episode, Brian Beckcom speaks with Dr. Bowen Loftin about his role leading Texas A&M University to the Southeastern Conference (SEC), the most momentous decision in college sports history, as well as his role as a pioneer in the fields of AI and VR, his leadership philosophy, and the importance of not taking yourself too seriously.
Dr. Loftin served as the President of Texas A&M University for over a decade and was a leader through the most consequential decision in college sports history, moving Texas A&M from the Big 12 to the SEC, which he famously coined as “The 100-Year Decision.”
Dr. Loftin is also an accomplished physicist who’s won various awards, including the American Association of Artificial Intelligence Award for an Innovative Application of Artificial Intelligence, the 1995 NASA Invention of the Year Award, and the IEEE Virtual Reality Conference Career Award.
Watch this episode on YouTube
Brian and Dr. Loftin discuss:
- His passion for physics and the life-changing scholarship that enabled him to find great success as a physicist and academic
- Technology’s inherent negative potential, how biology is guiding computer science, the Internet of Things (IoT), and social media
- “The 100-Year Decision: Texas A&M and the SEC”
- Questions of cultural fit and the generational gap that left Aggies divided on the decision to move out of the Big 12 and into the SEC
- How the move to the SEC proved to be advantageous for students, athletes, and Texas A&M as a whole
- The importance of finding a balance between University athletics and academics
- The biggest challenges he faced when moving Texas A&M to the SEC and how he dealt with public criticism by leveraging social media
- The value of not taking yourself too seriously
- His leadership philosophy and the power of perspective during moments of hardship and polarization
- And other topics
Dr. R. Bowen Loftin grew up as a small-town boy from Navasota, TX. His passion for physics propelled him to various leadership positions in academics, serving as Chair of the Department of Computer Science and Director of the NASA Virtual Environments Research Institute at the University of Houston, the 24th President of Texas A&M University, and later the chancellor of the University of Missouri. Dr. Loftin’s awards include the University of Houston-Downtown Awards for Excellence in Teaching and Service (twice), the American Association of Artificial Intelligence Award for an Innovative Application of Artificial Intelligence, NASA’s Space Act Award, the NASA Public Service Medal, the 1995 NASA Invention of the Year Award, and the IEEE Virtual Reality Conference Career Award. He is the author or co-author of more than one hundred technical publications, including a personal memoir, The 100-Year Decision: Texas A&M and the SEC. To connect with Dr. Loftin, visit his Twitter page.
Read the transcript:
Brian Beckcom: Hey everybody, Brian Beckcom here. And I have got Dr. Bowen Loftin. And, Dr. Lawson, I gotta tell you, I am very, very excited about this podcast for two major reasons. One of which is you were one of the leaders in one of the most momentous decisions – I don't think it's an overstatement to say one of the most momentous decisions in college football history. The move of A&M from the Big 12 to the SEC.
And we're hopefully going to talk a lot about that today in the podcast, but the other reason I'm really excited to get you on the show is you've been very, very involved in physics and artificial intelligence and computer engineering and virtual reality, and a lot of the stuff that is a real big deal nowadays and I've had a big interest in that since my A&M days when I was a computer science major.
So, I hope we get a chance to talk about that a little bit. But, before we get started, Dr. Loftin, how you doing man?
Dr. R. Bowen Loftin: I'm okay. I’m retired now. I served for over a decade as a university leader. That was enough. And I'm retired back in Bryan-College Station, almost within sight of Kyle Field at Texas A&M.
I'm just missing sports right now. We have a little bit of it. Soccer is back, football is back. The game on Saturday was entertaining to me. What also happened elsewhere was good, too. I mean, the other team, the main guy, [1:30], I don't have a lot of affection for. Then there was soccer on Sunday as well, and A&M put down Florida in that game, also. So, finally, after a very abrupt termination of fall football, softball, and baseball back in the early part of the year here, we're back to some sports. I'm very happy about that.
Brian Beckcom: How are you and your family doing through the quarantine and the pandemic and we've had a lot of racial unrest and issues related, and of course politics is completely insane right now. How are you and yours holding up right now?
Dr. R. Bowen Loftin: Well, I'm old enough to have lived through quite a bit, and I'm able to navigate these things. My wife is, as well. We're of course empty nesters, as you might expect at our age. My son lives near Denver, Colorado with his wife and two children. We did get to see them in July. We took a little trip up there by car to see them. My daughter lives in Wasilla, Alaska, and she has five children, and we haven’t seen them in a very long time.
Brian Beckcom: How’d she ended up in Alaska, just out of curiosity?
Dr. R. Bowen Loftin: A bit of a long story. Just really quickly, her husband is a pastor. He was asked to serve a church in Wasilla. That didn't work out, who his satisfaction and [2:45] the churches, so he left the ministry for a while. Moved from Lutheran Church to the Orthodox Church and went to a seminary for three years in the Carbondale, Pennsylvania area to retool, basically, and was sent back to Wasilla to lead a Orthodox congregation there. I feel like Alaska has a lot of Orthodox churches and they have a shortage of priests right now and so he was able to go back to the area they came from, basically, when he left the ministry before.
Brian Beckcom: Interesting. Interesting. Well, Dr. Loftin, a lot of people that will be listening to this show will know exactly who you are, but there will be some people that either don't know who you are, or don't know, you know, about a complete kind of idea about your background. So, before we get into some of the substantive things we're going to talk about today, who is Bowen Loftin? Where do you come from? How'd you end up being the president of A&M, being the Chancellor of University of Missouri? You know, tell us a little bit about your background and who you are.
Dr. R. Bowen Loftin: All accidents of birth, basically. I was born about 25 miles north of where I'm sitting right now. After one day, I was moved south 25 miles to where I grew up, in a little town called Navasota, Texas. That's a old little town in East Texas, basically.
So, I grew up very close to Texas A&M. Decided in an epiphany when I was 16 years old that I would like to be a college professor and sort of settled on that. Came to Texas A&M for the undergraduate work I did in the late 1960s. Then went on to Rice University in Houston for my graduate degrees. And after that, after a year and a half doing research at Rice, after my PhD, I entered my academic career. And stayed there till I retired.
So, I've always been a higher education guy. I was drawn, really, to two things. I was drawn to serve students, to help them navigate that very critical part of their lives from 18 to 22 years of age. To mentor them when they got into the graduate population. And I was also driven to do research.
My degrees are all in physics. I did physics research early in my career, but moved into computer science back in the 1980s, doing AI at that time. And then ultimately moved from that into computer graphics, doing virtual reality, that sort of thing. And those kinds of jobs, I moved into some leadership roles.
I was the department chair of computer science, for example, at the University of Houston for while. I ran a pretty good size laboratory in Houston. I then went to Virginia and ran a big laboratory there that was state-supported and was housed at Old Dominion University but was really connected to UVA and Virginia Tech, as well, and kind of became a pioneer in virtual reality in those particular days. Typically applied, though, to the area of training.
I was very interested in learning again and training people. So, the AI work I did at NASA and the University of Houston was really focused on training and education, as was the VR work I did later on in time. Then I got sucked into administration in a big way. A guy named Robert Gates, who was at that time the president of Texas A&M, hired me to be his vice president. A vice president among many. But I had the assignment of running the Galveston Branch Campus at Texas A&M. And that was a really, really good place to be. Small enough to know everybody. I could walk the campus every day, call every student by name. Every faculty member, every staff member. That was wonderful.
Hurricane Ike was a challenge. Came out on the campus and that required us to move everybody to the College Station for a semester. That was a monumental task. And then when Dr. Murano decided to leave the presidency of A&M, I became the interim president, and it was selected a short time later to be the president for a time. So about five years at Texas A&M as the president. I retired from that. And then I ended up almost six years immersed in Missouri, part of which was as their chancellor.
Academic Career and Physics
Brian Beckcom: Nice. Well, let me ask you a question. You said something early on in that answer. You said, “When I was 16, I decided I wanted to become a professor.” I mean, what 16-year-old kid says, “I want to be a college professor”? I mean, where did that come from?
Dr. R. Bowen Loftin: I don't really know. I've looked back on that time of my life. I must have read something or saw a movie or something that turned me on to that because I was first-generation. No one in my family had been to college.
Brian Beckcom: Yeah. I was going to ask you, maybe it was your parents or your folks?
Dr. R. Bowen Loftin: My dad finished sixth grade and went to work. My mother finished high school. And they were smart people. They were hardworking people. Salt of the earth kind of folk. But they had no clue what college was all about. They just knew it was a good thing. So, my parents always pushed me. They said, “You're going to go to college.” That was never debated.
But sometime around 16, I just had this idea. What I wanted to do in my life was be a professor. And I went and talked to one of my faculty members at Navasota High School. A guy, Milton Schaffer. He was my math and physics teacher there. And we talked about it several times. And that led me to do some research.
I went to the library. No internet in those days. We used books and such. And so, I went to the library and really tried to find out what it took to be a professor and realized it required more than one degree. I had to make good grades. I had to go to good schools. And so that sort of defined a lot of decisions I made later on in my life. And again, never departed from that pathway. I thought about it a few times, diverting myself a bit, but never did. So, I just stuck with it and all the way through to retirement, basically.
Brian Beckcom: What drew you – so, I'll tell you, when I got to A&M, I was playing basketball. I was what they call it – they didn't call it this back then, but I was preferred walk on which just meant I had a spot on the team, but didn’t have a scholarship and I was a general studies major. But I really liked computers, and this was in the early ‘90s when the internet was just becoming a thing.
I think, as a matter of fact, the internet was owned by the government at the time. Email had just become a thing, although you couldn't email anybody cause nobody had email. There was, like, six people that had email addresses. But I just kind of gravitated towards computer science because I enjoyed playing with computers. So, I'm curious, Dr. Loftin, what drew you to physics?
Dr. R. Bowen Loftin: Well, growing up, we were farmers and ranchers. My dad had a job with what's now called TxDOT, working on highway stuff. Labor. He just worked by the hour, basically, and did pretty heavy lifting. Literally. But he was not really at all knowledgeable, and my mother was – our family was about higher education in general. But again, I was really drawn to physics in high school because I liked to know how things worked. Those things really fundamentally describe how things work. So that was really attractive to me and I did well in the one course I had there. All we offered it Navasota High School at the time.
And Mr. Shaffer, my teacher and I talked about many times this idea of my interest in physics and why things do what they did. And so, that led me, when I applied to A&M, just to check off physics as my preferred major. Which was a great thing because I had no money. This was before we had the kind of federally guaranteed loans that we have today that are part of the new cycle as well. And I was paying for this. We had no money, that’s the thing. We were very, very close to the bone in terms of our lives in those days. And so, I told my dad when I was a high school senior, “I'm probably going to have to spend a year working just to save money up.”
I applied to three schools. I applied to Texas A&M, a little school in Austin, and Rice. And all three wrote back and said, “Because of your grades in high school, we're going to give you a tuition scholarship.” And I was ecstatic.
Brian Beckcom: Yeah. Nice.
Dr. R. Bowen Loftin: But then I got literature which said that wasn't the only cost. Funny about that. And that's when I began to worry about, “Can we make this work?” I had no way to borrow money for me to do this. And we had no money saved up, really. So, I was kind of despondent about all that. And I got a letter from A&M after the initial round of letters saying, “By the way, this former student at Texas A&M died recently, left money in his will to endow a scholarship for a physics major. We want you to have it.”
Brian Beckcom: Wow.
Dr. R. Bowen Loftin: And that made all the difference in the world.
Brian Beckcom: Unbelievable.
Dr. R. Bowen Loftin: I chose A&M immediately over the other two schools and came here. A place I had been to because it was close by several times. I knew the place. And came here and never looked back.
AI and VR
Brian Beckcom: Nice. Well, I have a question for you, a physics question for you.
Dr. R. Bowen Loftin: Oh, okay.
Brian Beckcom: Are we living in a simulation?
Dr. R. Bowen Loftin: I've wondered that myself more than once, especially in the last few years.
Brian Beckcom: Exactly. 2020. I mean, I think there's a glitch in the simulation, right?
Dr. R. Bowen Loftin: Matrix is all over us right now. I was really interested, I mean, physics was my background. I did research in physics until I got tenure and kind of earned my stripes at the university. But I was very concerned about my students, even way back then. I had so many students who just dropped out of the class. Physicals is not a trivial subject to many. And, I had a lot of students who just really struggled with it.
So, I was really drawn to AI. This was back in the mid-eighties, the 1980s. To find a way, if I could, to help people learn better. And I discovered a small literature in what was called intelligent tutoring systems. Which is applying AI. AI then takes the place of the teacher in an individual one-on-one situation.
So, I always found that if I had a kid in my office, one-on-one, I can help them learn. I can help them master difficult stuff. These classes of 100, 200, 300, that really made it more difficult for so many students to learn. So, I wanted to individualize instruction the way I knew how to do it. But you can't multiply one person into 300. You just can’t. AI gave me the promise of that. So, that led me into AI.
Then I went to NASA Johnson Space Center for a summer research period. And that was a chance to apply AI to their needs. That was right after the Challenger accident happened. They were losing a lot of flight controllers who had been there for a while, learning the craft to be Air Force people. Air Force canceled their entire shuttle program after the accident happened. And NASA was really struggling to train new people to take on the roles of flight controllers. And they sucked me into a lot of AI work to build training systems for these flight controllers at Johnson Space Center. Also at Kennedy and at Alabama, at the center there, as well.
So, I was busy for several years doing that. We patented that work. It got well used. It was proven to be quite effective. I was given the NASA Invention of the Year award for that. That was a very big deal for me. But I got bored then, and began to look at the glimmerings of what became virtual reality. Met Jaron Lanier, who was a pioneer.
Brian Beckcom: I've listened to a lot of his stuff lately on the dangers of social media and artificial intelligence.
Dr. R. Bowen Loftin: Yeah, he’s still around.
Brian Beckcom: Yeah, super smart guy. Super smart guy.
Dr. R. Bowen Loftin: But he had taken a little technology developed at Ames Research Center, that NASA center out in California, and parlayed that into some money by selling it to Nintendo. It was a glove. You could wear it to play games with. A million were built, he got some money from that, and that let him start his first company then.
And I bought several million worth of equipment from him at that point in time and sort of launched a VR lab at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, and that led to a lot of work applying VR to training astronauts, training flight controllers, and then I'll often to the DOD and places like that, as well. So, we kind of had a pretty broad coverage there in terms of our outreach, but it was a matter of my getting bored with one thing and moving on to something which I found interesting and challenging.
Brian Beckcom: You know, it's interesting. Tell me if I'm remembering this right. When the Challenger 7 – was it the Challenger 7 or the 17?
Dr. R. Bowen Loftin: It was seven because that was the number of people who died.
Brian Beckcom: Yeah. And I think when NASA went back and looked at, if I'm thinking about this right, was Richard Feynman the person –
Dr. R. Bowen Loftin: He was involved in the – they formed a commission, independent of NASA, to investigate why it happened. And Feynman famously dipped a rubber O-ring into liquid nitrogen, or ice water, actually, then made it brittle and then broke it on camera to kind of demonstrate what happened, that they had this spring there, which sealed the sections of the solid booster together that were strapped to the shuttle and that the low temperatures, unusual temperatures in Florida that particular morning of the launch, led to becoming brittle and allowing very hot, high pressure gasses to escape. And that cut into the large hydrogen oxygen fuel tank strapped onto the shuttle as well. And the rest is history, obviously.
Brian Beckcom: Yeah. And Richard Feynman is one of my intellectual heroes. A matter of fact, I spent quarantine –
Dr. R. Bowen Loftin: Extraordinary guy.
Brian Beckcom: Extraordinary teacher, extraordinary mind. The ability to communicate complicated scientific concepts and really playing language. He's able to break it down to first principles and just an amazing guy. But I'll tell you the other thing I read, Dr. Loftin, about the Challenger incident was part of the problem was the way that NASA was presented the information in some PowerPoints.
There's a professor. I think he's at Yale. Edward Tufte.
Dr. R. Bowen Loftin: I know Tufte very well.
Brian Beckcom: Yeah, he's done – and I do, too, because as lawyer, I have to present information to jury. So, I'm really interested in this topic. But he basically wrote an article. I think it was called “Death by PowerPoint,” where he essentially said the communication of the problem when the Challenger was coming back was, I mean, there was an underlying problem, obviously, like a substantive problem. But there was also a communication problem. I don't know if you've ready any of –
Dr. R. Bowen Loftin: I haven't read much about his, I mean, I'm well aware of his PowerPoint attitude. He’s very public about that. And I've listened to him. I’ve read all of his books and everything and he's an extraordinary mind, as well, about how you convey information. No question about that.
I think part of it was the fact that an engineer who really knew what the problem might be was ignored. He tried to communicate to his superiors what the problem was and it was sort of ignored in that regard. There was such a push to get this thing done, get this launch done, that people just did not pay attention to some of the critical things you did. It really served to change NASA's culture quite a bit. And, for the good or ill. I mean, you can argue good or ill. I mean, the business of space flight is inherently dangerous.
Brian Beckcom: That’s right.
Dr. R. Bowen Loftin: And so, where's the line? How far do you err towards caution, and then it slows down and makes an expensive process? How far do you go in the other direction, which makes it more dangerous? All of the crew members I've known, I've known quite a few astronauts in my life. All of them have accepted the risk. And I remember the extraordinary fire that happened during the Apollo days.
I remember a lot of the things that happened. And I lived through two accidents. The shuttle, as well. The second one was led by a good friend of mine, an Aggie who actually worked at NASA at the time. He led the investigation on that. Well, that was another whole set of problems there in terms of design and execution.
A good friend of mine who's now passed on was the chief engineer of the space shuttle. Aaron and I were talking about this. It was like a beast designed into too many things. Essentially, the problem with the shuttle was it was required to do so many things, it did nothing well. It was not a focused system, basically. And he was the chief engineer.
When he retired as the Johnson Space Center Director, he moved here to Texas A&M, was a professor for several years and taught the design course in mechanical engineering. Imagine taking a class in design from the chief engineer of the space shuttle.
Brian Beckcom: Unbelievable. Yeah.
Dr. R. Bowen Loftin: Incredible thing. I gave him his honorary doctorate on his deathbed. He died while I was president. And it was a very big loss to all of us. But we're getting astray now a bit, but my point here is simply that NASA’s work is inherently risky. How do you really manage that? Managing risk is what I've done a lot of.
As a university president, essentially, you're a risk manager. Working with young people who are very vulnerable in some respects at that time in their lives. You're working with faculty and staff. You have in a public university, like I've been a leader of, you have a huge number of bosses. You have politicians, you have board members, you have faculty. All these people don't always see the world the same way. And inherently, you're a risk manager when you're a college university leader.
Brian Beckcom: I'm curious to – and I know, listen, everybody, that's listening, we're going to talk about the SEC thing here in a second. You can sit here and listen to some intellectual stimulation before we talk about that.
So, let's talk about risk as it relates to artificial intelligence and things like that, Dr. Loftin, because that's a topic that's really, really interesting to me nowadays. There are people that are very, very smart that are very, very worried about artificial intelligence and, you know, what happens if we reach something called artificial general intelligence.
Artificial general intelligence, for people that don't follow this, is the idea of, essentially, I don't want to say conscious intelligence, but an intelligence that is very, very close to human intelligence as opposed to a narrow artificial intelligence which just does, like, the example of that would be, like, a chess computer or something. Something that does something very narrow, but very well.
So, what are your, when you're talking about risks, what are your thoughts about the current state of AI technology, the risk of AI technology, the potential benefits of AI technology? Because I imagine when you started back in the I guess late ‘70s, early ‘80s, around that time, that it was a really, really burgeoning – it was a brand-new field. And so, there's so many things have happened since then, Dr. Loftin. What's your outlook for artificial intelligence going forward?
Dr. R. Bowen Loftin: Well, you’ve outline already, Brian, sort of the big issue here. The promise of AI was so huge in the early 1980s. I can remember going to triple AI meetings that were extraordinarily interesting places to be. I mean, the people there, the money that flowed, the parties they threw. It was incredible. And that all kind of burst.
It didn't really turn out to be as quite the technology people thought it was going to be at the time and we went through a long period of low-level development. It’s come back now to us in a big way. There’s nobody listening to this podcast who doesn't deal with AI almost every day. When you make a phone call to a company, almost certainly the phone is answered by some artificial intelligence of some kind. And your interaction with them can be frustrating, inefficient, all kinds of things here.
And so, we learned in my time even, back in the early ‘80s when I was working on this initially, that if you did narrow the scope of the problem, you can make AI very successful. We knew even then that you can make an AI system more successful than a human doctor at diagnosing certain kinds of diseases. It’s well published. But of course not welcomed by the medical community.
We have other things we can do. I mean, we developed neural networks at NASA during my time there, and I wasn't the one doing this, but they were so good and so fast. You could actually monitor things no human would be able to deal with. For example, we used to test shuttle engines in Mississippi at the center space center there, and we had catastrophic failures. Those engines were equipped with over 300 sensors, collecting data every few milliseconds. And no way could a human spot the patterns that precursed failure and make the decision to turn off the engine in time to save it. But neural networks could do that. They could actually operate so quickly, they could shut the engine down before it failed, and no human could have done that.
Talk to him about doing that for the shuttle as well, in terms of its launch and being able to watch data coming in at high rates, higher than any human could understand, and use that AI-based to shut down a launch. It never happened. People were unwilling to let go of that.
The space shuttle itself, from the very beginning, was capable of landing itself automatically. Guess what? Never happened. The humans in the craft would never let that take place. In spite of having been manifested a couple of times for actual use, it was never done. The Russian version of space shuttle which flew up a few times, I think, early on without people was able to land itself just fine. They were very clever at getting that data from us, I think.
My point is, AI can do a lot. The issue becomes what are the limitations? How much can you trust it is the real question. Things that don't matter a lot, we trust it a lot. The telephone, getting you to the right place in the phone tree. Doing Q and A or FAQ-type thing for me to troubleshoot something on the phone with them. That's very doable. General intelligence, as you said, is something we really haven't achieved yet. But people tried. Folks have written about it. Science fiction writers like Asimov wrote a lot of books about the possible bad effects of these things.
Brian Beckcom: Yep. Exactly.
Dr. R. Bowen Loftin: Many movies have happened. Remember HAL?
Brian Beckcom: Well, you know, I'm thinking of the example, like, let's say you built an AI to calculate pi to as many digits as you can, or the AI to build paperclips. The risk is if you don't build in some sort of moral intuition or some sort of restrictions, the AI might say, “Well, I'm going to suck up all the resources in the entire world in order to build these paperclips.” You got to have some sort of fail-safe of some sort.
And you know, this is, to me, one of the reasons, Dr. Loftin, this is so interesting to me is the famous test of general intelligence is the Turing Test. And that basically is a test that says, “Can you tell the difference between a human and a machine? I mean, can you tell it's a machine?” And everybody that's been on one of these phone trees where there say there's an automated recording, knows that we're not there yet.
You know, I drive a Tesla. And one of the reasons I drive a Tesla is because I'm fascinated by watching the car learn how to drive by itself. But it's also interesting to me, Dr. Loftin, because it's crystal clear that the car is not generally intelligent. It's just not there yet. Basically, Tesla uses brute force, deep learning, neural networks. And those are great, but I question whether those can be characterized as general intelligence or not. I'm just not sure they are, but there are people that think –
Dr. R. Bowen Loftin: No, they can't be.
Brian Beckcom: Yeah. There are people that think –
Dr. R. Bowen Loftin: They can be a piece of it. They can be a piece of it. I think a true, like, we are complicated things. A true general intelligence AI needs to have multiple parts to it. I've worked on rural-based systems a lot in building my early AI stuff. We did production rules, which was a thing of the day. And they worked very well as long as you can actually write the rule correctly. But the human was writing the rule and that was the problem.
I think a true AI that's very general in nature has to have many pieces to it. Self-learning is part of that. Humans learn. From almost the moment they're born, they learn. Or before they’re born, they learn, to some extent. So, that's going on all the time in us, and an AI, to be that kind of AI, has to be able to do the same thing. It has to have many sensory inputs. Has to have a lot of different mechanisms to be able to really learn from those inputs.
You have to question, how could Helen Keller have learned what she learned? This woman was blind. She was deaf. She also housed an extraordinary brain and that brain was adaptive enough to use the very limited bandwidth she had then for sensing the outside world to let her not only learn but communicate back to that world. Think about that. So, it was a miracle in many ways when it actually happened.
So, we have a lot to learn from those kinds of examples. I don't doubt we will get to that point someday where we have built something which is able to learn. Systems learn right now, again, in very narrow domains, but we can make them learn more broadly over time. And you can read Kurzweil, for example, has written a lot about this.
Brian Beckcom: Yeah, yeah. The singularity. For sure.
Dr. R. Bowen Loftin: You really worry about could there be a situation where there's a HAL that takes over things? There's many movies that have been put out about AIs taking over the world or some aspect of the world. Controlling our nuclear arsenal, for example. Things like Aspen. There’s been many, many attempts to write about it and make movies about. How much we can safeguard that, your guess is as good as mine. This is an open question, really. And we could spend many hours talking through this and probably arguing about it.
Brian Beckcom: Yeah. I mean, and one of the most fundamental questions, and I also have a philosophy degree from A&M, so these subjects kind of overlap a little bit. But one of the fundamental questions is: Is general intelligence substrate dependent? In other words, can you build a quote brain out of materials that are not the same as the human brain.
In other words, is there something about the human brain, and they're starting to find some bottom states in the way human brain functions physically which are pretty interesting, but is there something about the human brain, like, the biological substrate that creates intelligence, or like Kurzwell said, is it substrate independent? And in other words, if you have the configuration of the equipment in the right way, could you have intelligence just arise spontaneously? And if you do have intelligence arise spontaneously, what does that look like? Because of course, Dr. Loftin, I mean, you've seen, you know, there will never be another human being ever in history be able to beat a computer at chess. Computers from now on for the rest of history will be better than humans in chess.
And it's the same thing that you were talking about, radiologists are in trouble right now because AIs are just better by a long shot at reading MRI films. And so, you know, the question becomes: if intelligence itself is not a substrate dependent, then what happens when an intelligence arises outside of the human brain? Like, is this intelligence going to be so smart that it's going to look at us kind of the way we look at ants and not even pay much attention to us? Is it going to have bad intent, good intent? Things like that.
I mean, Google has right now, Google's DeepMind program has computers that are generating – there's one that's generating, I forget what it's called, GP3 or something like that? That's generating books and paintings and things like that that are indistinguishable from what humans are doing. I mean, the DeepMind computer at Google is doing things that the engineers at Google don't even understand, which is a little bit frightening, right?
Dr. R. Bowen Loftin: It can be. I would say – I have no answers for you, basically, but I'll say two things. One is that I understand what Kurzweil has said, but I also would look and see that we are many times now are using biology as a way to guide computer science. Looking at how living things organize, how they interact with the environment, how they can be self-actualizing, as a model for how we actually build computing.
Now think about. So, we're really turning our attention to ourselves and the things around us that are alive to get clues as to how they do it and we try to mimic that. So, that's part of what I would say in answer to the Kurzweil sort of theory that we can do it outside totally. I think we'll end up – we create intelligence that's somewhat like our own. It will probably have some biological basis to it. It's just the nature of the business that we're in right now. So, that's part of the problem here.
At the same time, I think most technology has inherently a negative potential. And so, the people who build it, the people who use it, have to be able to manage that. We haven't always shown we can do that well. There are examples where we didn't do it well.
So, I think we have to really kind of look at ourselves and say, “Are we good enough to be able to create things that have that sort of power themselves, and to let them have control over more and more parts of our lives?” The IOT is a very neat thing, but –
Brian Beckcom: And that’s the internet – for people that don't know, that's the Internet of Things. That's basically where we're constantly connected with all our devices.
Dr. R. Bowen Loftin: But when your house is totally controlled by an Internet-connected set of computers, and someone can intrude into that and do ill, think about the possibilities. Turn off your AC, cook you in your own building. All kinds of things possible there when we connect things together. So, the benefits are obvious, but there are also drawbacks and I've taught classes about this and I have never offered my students answers, but just try to equip them to be critical thinkers about it.
Brian Beckcom: You know, and you talked about Jaron Lanier earlier. And I worry, like, for instance, I think social media – and I'm the biggest technologists that you'll ever meet, but I'm starting to second guess some of my technological utopianism because we have, I mean, social media right now, Dr. Loftin, is essentially the largest psychological experiment on human beings we've ever conducted, and nobody volunteered for it.
I mean, the stuff that's going on on social media is kind of frightening. And we basically ceded control of this experiment to a very small group of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs. And I, you know, I'm starting to question whether that was a good idea or not.
The 100-Year Decision
Brian Beckcom: Okay, listen, guys, we're going to talk about the SEC now. I just had to hear some good physics and some science and computer engineering from my friend, Dr. Loftin. So, Dr. Loftin. There's going to be tons of people that are going to want to hear this story from the inside. I think that this is a leadership podcast, it's a positive leadership podcast, and this is absolutely the perfect case study in leadership.
I mean moving A&M to the SEC, the hundred-year decision, as you've called it, was a momentous decision and there are so many different stakeholders involved with so many different passionate feelings about this. And so, walk us through that decision. Like, maybe the best way to start – you can start wherever you want to but maybe the best place to start would be kind of where that idea of moving to the SEC originated and then kind of what your role was in that and then just kind of walk us through, if you don't mind, the different way that – the leadership aspects, how you dealt with the different stakeholders, the passions, things of that nature.
Dr. R. Bowen Loftin: Well, understand that I grew up in the Southwest Conference era. That’s where I come from. And you've got to be old enough to know what that is, okay? And that really is where the SEC came from, in terms of A&M’s future.
If you talk to R.C. Slocum, you talked to him. He didn't talk about this particular issue here, but he was there at the time. And as the SWC was falling apart, it was falling apart because it was basically a one-state conference. I [36:05] was in it. Every other school was in Texas. And TV was becoming the dominant driver of college sports. And when that happened, it was recognized right away that one state, even though it's a big state, wasn't enough to really be able to offer up a conference that was going to be attractive to the media. And that's where this all started.
So, back in the ‘90s, as the conference was falling apart, Arkansas bolted to the SEC. And there was an interest here, and RC was part of that, of taking A&M to the SEC then. To understand, that was A&M by itself.
Brian Beckcom: Give us the timeframe of this, Dr. Loftin.
Dr. R. Bowen Loftin: This is late 1990s.
Brian Beckcom: Late 1990s. Okay.
Dr. R. Bowen Loftin: So, we're talking about 25 years ago. The Governor of the state of Texas was a woman named Ann Richards. Graduate of Baylor University. Bob Bullet, a graduate of Texas Tech University. Okay? And they were trying to keep things together for the schools they had loyalty towards, as well. So, they made it clear to the leadership here that we were not going to go to the SEC. That was made very clear. And RC was present at those meetings. He can tell you all about this as a firsthand observer of it, which I’m not.
So, enter the discussions then that Texas A&M and UT Austin initiated in with the Big 8. Big 8 was a Midwestern conference, but mostly small states. So, they needed more TV boxes. And they cast their eyes south. We cast ours north. And there was a lot of discussion about two schools from Texas, UT and Texas A&M, joining the Big 8 and forming a 10-team conference.
Then the governor got involved because guess what? Baylor wasn't part of that equation. Bob Bullet got involved, a very powerful man, when Texas Tech wasn’t part of the conference. So, all of a sudden, it was not just these two schools down here joining the Big 8. It was four.
If you talk to the folks in Nebraska who were very much the center of attention oftentimes for the Big 8 in those days, they never got over that in some respects. Tom Osborne, name ring a bell to you? Tom Osborne was –
Brian Beckcom: For sure, yeah. He was a coach in Nebraska and then he was a Senator, I think. May still be a Senator.
Dr. R. Bowen Loftin: Exactly. He's not anymore, but he was the football coach. He became the A.D. at some point, too. He was also in Congress for a while. He did many things there. But during my time in the Big 12, he was the A.D. from Nebraska. And he was never happy with this addition of Baylor and Texas Tech to this 8-team, 10 team conference. Add into that the fact that the Big 12 was headquartered where? In Dallas, Texas. That was not popular with certain others in the particular conflict.
So, I go into my first conference leadership meeting as the new President of Texas A&M and boy, it was interesting. It was interesting. It was very clear who was in charge. Friends in Austin were very much in charge there. And Nebraska was a fairly important player, as was Oklahoma. And the biggest problem the Big 12 had then, and still has, is that the distribution of money is unequal.
In those days, it was strictly – it was based largely on how many TV appearances you had. Think about that a minute. was on TV, almost every week against Texas A&M. We were beginning to see all these things were bubbling around back in the ‘90s here. That was the generation of the Big 12. It was the dashing of the hopes of Texas A&M to move to the SEC. And it was very much politically driven.
So, here we are in the Big 12, a conference bound together by a TV contract. Literally. That’s what bound the conference together. Led by a man named Dan Beebe, who I felt had some real challenges of leadership in his role there as a commissioner of the Big 12.
We move forward then to my time. In my meetings at the Big 12 board, when the chancellors and presidents came together, it was so clear how things worked to our disadvantage. We were a middle of the pack school in the Big 12. That said, the real leadership was UT Austin followed by Nebraska and Oklahoma. And there were a few of us in kind of in the middle. Then there was the Baylor and Texas Tech and Kansas State and so on. Kansas at the bottom.
It was spread out based on sort of how big these schools were, how much TV they got for exposure. A variety of pecking orders was established in that conference early on. And it showed when you walked in the door there.
So, at first, I thought I would try to make the best of it. And I really pushed hard to change the bylaws to make revenue sharing equitable, as it is in the SEC and always has been. That didn't fly too quickly. So, I did push hard on that.
We had a real crisis in 2010. We began exploring the possibility of leaving the Big 12 for the SEC. I discussed that with my board. I got permission from them to begin working in this kind of quietly.
Brian Beckcom: Whose idea was that the second time around? Like, who was pushing that the most? Was that you, was it the board?
Dr. R. Bowen Loftin: Well, I would say I was one of the instigators of that. We had a board member named Gene Stallings. The name may seem familiar to you. He was a football coach at A&M at the time. He goes to Alabama after leaving here, followed Bear Bryant to Alabama and the national championship there. Also coached professionally for a while as well.
So, Gene was on the board. He clearly was SEC-focused because he'd been in Alabama and had coached for a while and won a national championship there. So, I would say he was one of the ones bringing us up. Certainly another region named Jim Wilson was part of that conversation, as well.
I could sense there was interest. I brought it up initially without pointing to the SEC saying, “I don't think we're going to be well-served in the Big 12.” That was my basic problem here. I didn't see A&M really having a chance to become the school it ought to be as long as it stayed in the Big 12. That was sort of my thought on this.
And then the SEC came up from a variety of people who were certainly familiar with the landscape. But what really started the whole process was UT Austin. In late 2009, early 2010, they entered into conversations with Larry Scott who was then, and still is the commissioner of the PAC. That time it was the PAC-10. Now it's the PAC-12. And I began hearing rumors about this.
So, I was in the spring of 2010, in the office of the President of UT Austin. And I asked the others to leave the room so we had some privacy.
Brian Beckcom: Was that Bill Powers? Was Bill Powers –
Dr. R. Bowen Loftin: It was Bill Powers at the time.
Brian Beckcom: He was one of my professors at UT Austin, when I went to law school there.
Dr. R. Bowen Loftin: And he was a great teacher, I'm sure, at that time. But Bill and I, in private, were talking about it. I said, “Bill, I'm hearing rumors that you're in conversation with the PAC about moving Texas A&M in Texas to the PAC” “I can't tell you about that right now, but don't worry. Whatever happens, we'll take care of you.”
It took a great deal of self-control not to react inappropriately to that. A short time later in my own office and in College Station, he said the same thing to me. So, it was really clear that that was going on.
Ultimately, Larry called me. Larry Scott called me and said, “I'm going to come see you.” And he showed up here and he had a plan for a 16-team conference called the PAC-16 with two divisions, North and South. And he had already scheduled every game in every sport. That took months of work. This wasn't a momentary thing. This was a long-term commitment he had made with Bill Powers as his consultant here to prepare for the receiving, not just two teams, but more than two teams to the PAC to expand it into a 16-team conference.
His vision of the world, at least the U S world, was four 16-team conferences, 64 total teams, that would play their own championships and then their four champions would come together and define the national champion each year. That was his vision of college football, basically.
He almost got there. He almost got there. It was a near thing. So, that's kind of what the context of what was going on in 2010. My concern was really doing the best thing possible for Texas A&M, which I came to believe was going to the SEC.
Brian Beckcom: I'm curious, not to interrupt you, Dr. Loftin, but I'm curious, what was it, because it sure sounds weird to me for UT Austin and Bill Powers, who – Professor Powers or Dean Powers is dead now, but a super good guy, a lot of respect for him, but it just sounds weird that they would essentially negotiate on our behalf without our own president being a part of that. I mean, that's just bizarre. So, do you have any explanation for kinda that weird process you just described?
Dr. R. Bowen Loftin: Well, I mean, as an Aggie, I mean, I’m biased here about this, so. But, I mean, I have to believe that they felt – I think Bill, in talking to me face-to-face in private, he clearly believed he was doing a good thing for us. He wasn't seeing himself as being condescending. That's how I perceived it, clearly. Different viewpoints exist here.
I think that, number one, he understood the history. He knew back in the ‘90s that when things became more known to many people, the politician stepped in and made the decisions and he wanted to do this quietly at first and get things lined up so it could happen quickly and not give the politicians time to really get involved and medal and change the direction that he felt we should go in.
I think he was very much partnered with DeLoss Dodds in that conversation and that thinking process. Dodds at that time was the AD at Texas. I think these two gentlemen really believed they were doing the right thing for their school, the right thing for some of the schools that they played with every year in the Big 12 at that time. And they wanted to keep this quiet so they could get things lined up so it could go very quickly and avoid political interference in the process as it happened back in the ‘90s, when the Big 12 came together unexpectedly the way it did.
That's just my theory. I can't prove that. You can certainly talk to those who might be in the inner circle there. As you said, Bill passed away a while back, so he's not around to ask anymore, but that's a possible conversation we'd have with somebody else. My problem was, I didn't see the future for Texas A&M being on the West Coast.
Brian Beckcom: Can I asked you a question about that, too, Dr. Loftin? Because when this came out – so, I'm a third generation Aggie. My dad and granddad both went to A&M. My brother went to A&M, as well. Big Aggie family. But when I heard the rumors about maybe going to the West Coast, the PAC-10, or the PAC-12, or the PAC-16, or whatever it was going to be, there was something about, and I hate to use this word, but I think people will know what I'm talking about. It just culturally didn't seem like a good fit.
I mean, setting aside the fact that you would have to travel these, you know, massively long distances, potentially, the fit just didn't feel right. Although, you know, frankly, as somebody who has a degree from UT Law who spent some time in Austin, it did kind of feel like to me that the University of Texas would be a good fit potentially in the PAC 10, whereas A&M, when I started hearing about the SEC, I mean, I was thinking, man, culturally, that seems like just an absolutely perfect fit.
So, talk a little bit about that piece of the puzzle. How much of the discussions centered around things other than, like, travel and expenses and money contracts, and how much of it was just thinking about the fit of the different schools and the different conferences?
Dr. R. Bowen Loftin: That was very important for me, personally. It was important for others, as well. You've already explained it. I mean, basically, if you look at the majority of schools in the PAC, they are West Coast schools with a very different sort of culture on campus than we have.
Clearly, Austin was a much better fit with them than Texas A&M was. The SEC, you're talking about mostly land-grant schools like Texas A&M, with a kind of heritage focusing on first generation students, focusing on agriculture, engineering, practical contents like that. Not so much liberal arts like we would see at UT Austin. Just the nature of these schools.
All of us do all the things we do, but there are certainly focuses that are very different here. And you're exactly right. I didn't see at all there a fit. In my book, I published a spreadsheet I put together.
Brian Beckcom: Yeah, I know. That thing is incredible.
Dr. R. Bowen Loftin: With the three possibilities here. You have stay in the Big 12 as it is, or some variant thereof. Go to the PAC. Go to the SEC. And I wrote down in every dimension you just mentioned and others besides that. Issues of travel. But issues of culture were very dominant in that thinking process. But see, when this became more publicly known, what amazed me is the feedback I got from our former students and our current students.
In 2010, it was about 50/50. About 50% wanted us to go to the SEC and 50% wanted us to either go to the PAC or stay in the Big 12. That was kind of the way, it really divided in half. It was pretty incredible how divided it was. And that was probably due to a lot of things. Some folks just don't like change. And we had rivalries, things like that. Got it. Not surprised there at all.
What was interesting was looking at who groups were. Those who wanted us to go to the SEC were largely former students from Jackie Sherrill’s era.
Brian Beckcom: Really?
Dr. R. Bowen Loftin: Think about that.
Brian Beckcom: Well, you know, I was actually going to ask you this, Dr. Loftin, because my impression was that there was some – for the older Ags, you know, the guys in my dad's class and older, there's still this sense, maybe even a subconscious sense, that, you know, we're kind of connected to UT. Like, we’re the little brother or whatever you want to call it. And then there was –
Dr. R. Bowen Loftin: And actually, even more than that, Brian, to the old Southwest Conference. That’s the generation before us. Before you. My generation and earlier, basically, were wedded to this in-state. I mean, here at A&M, we wore spurs before we, okay? It was ingrained in us to play these schools here in Texas that we had historically worked with at the Southwest Conference.
And Thanksgiving Day, in my time anyway, was a huge day for us to play our friends in Austin. Highlight of my freshman year was Thanksgiving Day 1967 when I watched A&M beat Texas in Kyle Field, 10-seven. I couldn't speak for three days. My voice was – it was amazing.
Brian Beckcom: Well, you know, one of the reasons I went to A&M, even though my dad was – you were talking about Jackie Sherrill. Even though my dad and granddad went to A&M, one of the reasons I went there was my dad started taking me down. He retired out of Fort Worth. He was an Air Force Lieutenant Colonel. We lived all over the place. And so, I didn't get to go to A&M until like the mid-‘80s. And that was right when Jackie Sherrill showed up. And I remember going, I think it was in ’84, ‘85. We beat Texas to go to the combo and there's literally cotton raining out of the stands. And I'm looking around going, “Man, this is the coolest thing I've ever seen. I got to go here.”
So, generationally, yeah. It sounds like there was, like, a generational gap between –
Dr. R. Bowen Loftin: There was. I mean, the older guys were very much in favor of staying put or going to the PAC. One of the problems was they perceived the SEC to be a lesser conference.
Brian Beckcom: Academically or athletically?
Dr. R. Bowen Loftin: They thought the SEC was lesser academically.
Brian Beckcom: But see, that's not – and not to interrupt you, but that was a common misconception then. It's a common misconception now. There are more AAU universities – I think there's twice as many. That's American Association of Universities. In the SEC than there are in the Big 12. I mean A&M, Florida –
Dr. R. Bowen Loftin: There’s more, but not twice as many. It’s four versus three, okay?
Brian Beckcom: Okay. Four versus three. Vanderbilt, Georgia –
Dr. R. Bowen Loftin: The Big 10 is all AAU except for Nebraska. The PAC 12 is mostly AAU except for a couple of schools. You've got these two conferences that are really mostly AAU schools that are very much elite public research universities or private research universities. And the SEC had only two initially. They had Vanderbilt and Florida. Then A&M joined and Missouri joined, they had four all of a sudden. Took two out of the Big 12, and you only had three left. So, you sort of begin to see how this played out. And so now the SEC has more AAU schools than the Big 12 does. Not by a large number, but it's there.
But you saw not only the academic perception being negative of the SEC, but also the integrity question was there, too. There was a lot of talk about how much the SEC schools cheated. I looked into that. I looked into the infraction records. The answer was it really wasn’t, actually. It was sort of there, but it really wasn't there.
And so therein lies, you know, this idea of perception versus reality. There was perception that the SEC was negative in terms of academics. In terms of integrity. Whereas the other conferences were better. Well, that really wasn’t that true. But that's what people thought. And the older Ags really that way. But what really happened to change things between 2010 and 2011 was a thing called the Longhorn Network.
Brian Beckcom: I was, oh yeah, let's talk about that.
Dr. R. Bowen Loftin: That was in the works in 2010 and it was revealed in the latter part of 2010 as a reality in terms of a contract between UT Austin and ESPN. And that changed everything. And I won't go into all the details of that, but the reaction to that, not only at A&M but elsewhere in the Big 12, was huge. And it changed things dramatically here at A&M. All of a sudden, it wasn't 50/50, it was 95/5. The fact is, things changed.
So, by the time we got to the summer of 2011, the entire landscape had changed in terms of the thoughts about the right place for A&M to be. And all of a sudden, the SEC became a possibility again. Back in 2010 when our board made a decision not to go forward with this, almost the same time UT’s board made the decision along the same lines, I made a phone call to a guy named Mike Slive. The commissioner of the SEC. “You’re the first to hear of this, but we can't make it happen right now. But I want to know from you personally, is the door still open?” And he assured me it was.
During a bowl game later that year, he reassured me the same thing. The door’s open. So, in July of 2011, when this all came up again, I went to the board, told them I thought we should go. I talked to the SEC again. They gave me, you know, leave to do that. I went out, went out on the smoking balcony. At that time, it was called that. Outside of the zone club in the north end of Kyle Field. And I called Mike Slive. And he was having a glass of bourbon and smoking a cigar on his patio and we had a great conversation.
Brian Beckcom: You know, the Longhorn Network was a phenomenal deal for UT. Although I still, you know, I still, like, I've talked about this to a lot of my friends. I'm the biggest Aggie sports fan that you will ever find. But I do not want to watch nothing but Aggie sports 24 hours a day on one channel. Like. To me, it was a great deal financially for UT, and I totally understood why they did it. But it turns out it, at least to me, watching all the different teams in the SEC on the SEC network is a lot more fun.
I would – let me put it this way. I would not want a 24-hour Texas Aggie football or sports network. That would get boring. So, anyway, but I'm sure that the Longhorn Network was basically, I mean, that was the straw that broke the camel's back, right?
Dr. R. Bowen Loftin: Oh, it was really very visible. And people saw immediately the benefits it brought to UT and that it brought everybody else, especially at Texas A&M. Especially when they began talking about broadcasting high school games
Brian Beckcom: With the recruiting advantages. Right.
Dr. R. Bowen Loftin: Think about that. Now, this is a ballet [57:45] stop that, at least temporarily at the time this all took place. But you're right. It was a great thing for UT. And understand that one of the big differences the Big 12 had with the conferences was in the Big 12, you didn't sign over your rights to the conference. So, I had to sign a contract with Fox, not the conference commissioner.
In the SEC and other conferences, basically, you give up your rights in joining the conference and the conference manages your rights for you. But in the Big 12, we had never done that. It's been done since then, but not then. So, UT fully owned their rights and A&M did, too. And others.
And there was talk about Oklahoma building their own network or OSU in Oklahoma and U of Socomo [58:35] would have their own network in state. We looked into it here. I couldn't see how we’d make that work for the reasons you said and others. It just didn't seem to make sense we could do that on our own. But I looked into it. I looked into the possibility of there being an Aggie network out there, but it just didn't seem feasible to me. But UT pulled it off and that particular action on their part is what really changed the whole landscape for us in terms of being able to get where we wanted to go. Where we should be, which was in the SEC.
And it wasn’t smooth sailing. There were certain schools who'd gotten away, especially one in Waco, Texas. It didn’t end up happening. Ultimately, we resolved all of that and got it done. But I went through some pretty roller coaster rides during about three weeks’ time there while this was all being discussed and worked through. ‘Cause Mike Slive and the conference, the SEC leadership, did not want to get on board in a big lawsuit. That wasn't their thing.
Brian Beckcom: Stupid lawyers.
Dr. R. Bowen Loftin: Well, the judge offered – the judge called his friend who was then the president of the University of Georgia, and told him that if you proceed with A&M, we're going to litigate this. And that frightened people. And it made them back off. Not completely, but it made them slow down the process here. And we had to work through a number of issues here to get that resolved and ultimately it did get resolved.
I'll tell you this, that Bill Powers was actually very much helping us get there. When he realized we were really serious about this. I was there when he told the entire Big 12 board of directors, “Look, let's let them go.” He wasn't trying to stop this from happening once he realized that it was going to happen.
Now, I had people from other schools come down to see me and try to talk me out of it. But, at a board meeting onetime, Bill basically said to all the board members, “Let them go. Let them go.” One school just couldn't do it.
What I find interesting is that when we went through the mediation process to dissociate ourselves legally from the Big 12, we went to mediation up in Kansas City and there were three university presidents and chancellors from the Big 12 and me. And lawyers, of course, around us and everything. But the three they picked were Kansas State, Kansas, and Baylor. To be the Big 12 spokespersons. Think about that a minute.
Brian Beckcom: Why is that?
Dr. R. Bowen Loftin: Obviously, since that time, Baylor’s done pretty well. So, they were okay. But, I mean, you pick what may be perceived to be maybe the three, at that time, weakest schools in the conference to be the negotiators for this. Which made it very difficult.
Brian Beckcom: Yeah. I’ll bet.
Dr. R. Bowen Loftin: Missouri was there as well. They wouldn't let us work together. We had to work separately. Divide and conquer, I guess, was the theory there. But ultimately, we got it done. It took a while. It took a lot of tears and a lot of yelling and screaming but we got it all done. And we were able to walk away and have an acceptable situation for our disassociation from the Big 12 and I think that you can look today and say, “Wow, that was the right thing to do.” Very few people who yelled at me back in 2010 about not doing this have come back to me, and said, “Boy, it was the right things to do.”
Brian Beckcom: Have you ever had anybody come up and say, “You know, Dr. Loftin, I was wrong. You were right. It was a great” –
Dr. R. Bowen Loftin: Yes. I won't give you any names but yes, I've had exactly that conversation with people who were the most vociferous against this move to the SEC back in the original, this is the first year, in 2010, not 2011. 2010. They did come back eventually and say it was the right thing to do. Now, obviously, A&M has not gotten a championship in the SEC yet. Not yet. But my philosophy always was to be the best you play the best. And I think that has to be the case right now. We're in the best conference in the country. We play some extraordinarily challenging schools. Our schedule last year was one for the ages. I hope never again.
Brian Beckcom: Yeah, never again.
Dr. R. Bowen Loftin: Between the SEC and Clemson, you know, we were really, really hard pressed.
Brian Beckcom: There wasn’t, and I think there's a leadership lesson there, Dr. Loftin. When you talk about going into what at the time and probably still today is the toughest football conference in the country. There were people that were like, “This is too hard. There's no way. The schedule's too brutal. Let's stay in the Big 12 where we can win a championship every four or five years and let's do it that way.”
And I remember thinking back then, “Boy, that is – that's kind of a bad way to look at things.” I mean, basically you're saying, “I am scared to go play with the big boys.” And so yes, we haven't won an SEC championship yet. Although I would argue, you know, in some ways, I'd rather finish second in the SEC West than win the Big 12 championship, at least right now. I mean, it's, you know, the money that's come in, the publicity that's come in. Of course, the timing with Johnny Football was good and Mike Evans, and some of those guys turned out to be really, really good timing.
But you know, and the other thing I would say, Dr. Loftin, is, I'm not sure picking a conference based on your ability to win a championship in one or two years is the best way to do it. I mean, there are far more important considerations when you're trying to decide, like you said, and like you said a lot, where are you going to spend the next hundred years? And so –
Dr. R. Bowen Loftin: You're right, Brian. The real – if you look at my book again, the three things I cited specifically that were the rationales for our joining the SEC, number one was compatibility. We fit it. We fit it. And if you looked down below the first layer, if you asked the deans at A&M who they talked to, who they respected, who they worked with the most, it was the SEC deans and their colleges.
The Ag Dean here was very heavily connected to the ag deans in the SEC schools. Same for the Engineering Dean. They're just is a lot of commonality between these schools here. So, we were a good fit, that was number one.
Number two, we were going to be able to give our student athletes and our school the greatest visibility they could possibly have. Before we were in the SEC, I couldn’t have watched a game in London. Even in New York City, of A&M playing. Now I can go into a bar in New York City and I can watch an A&M football game.
Brian Beckcom: Isn’t that cool?
Dr. R. Bowen Loftin: I can go to London. I can go to Beijing and watch one, for that matter.
Brian Beckcom: You know, and I tell this story, Dr. Loftin, when my dad was stationed in upstate New York when he was in the Air Force, there was no internet, no social media, none of that stuff. You couldn't get the games on TV. There was no ESPN. Couldn't get – maybe could get the box for the next day. So, what he would do is he would call his sister who lived in Waco. And she would hold her phone against the radio and he would listen to the entire game long distance.
Dr. R. Bowen Loftin: You do what you gotta do, okay? But think about being a student athlete here. I mean, your visibility's important. Your school's important. A PSA about Texas A&M for 30 seconds is heard by so many more people today than in our days in the Big 12. We were being shown on Fox Southwest. Think about that. Fox Southwest. Now we're on CBS or the SEC network. It's a different world entirely for us right now in terms of how many people can see us and also see those PSAs we get free time to put out there for every game we do to talk about our core values. Talk about who we are and what we do in a way that really communicates the quality and the extraordinary nature of this institution.
Athletics & Academics
Brian Beckcom: I think that's the perfect time to talk about something that I wanted to ask you about that I have some pretty strong feelings about. I bet there may be some people that are listening to this saying, “Well, all they're talking about is sports and football, and they're not talking about the academic component of the school.”
So, Dr. Loftin, talk to us about the balance between academics and athletics at a big public institution like A&M. Because I think, you know, my view is, I was talking to coach Sherill about this and he was like, “Who's the president of Nebraska? Who's the president of Florida? You don't know who they are.” And he goes, “The only reason you know the president of A&M is cause you're an Aggie, but I'll bet you you know the football coaches of those schools.”
And so, his point was that football – primarily football, but some of the other sports bring so much publicity and money and things like that to the school that it has knockoff effects that are good for the academics. And so that's where I've always kind of come down on it. But talk about your view about balancing the academics with the athletics as it relates to the SEC move.
Dr. R. Bowen Loftin: It's a huge part of your job in a place like this. I was a president who paid attention to athletics. Not everybody does so, but I did, and I did so for good reason. I didn't want to have things go wrong. I mean, what you just said is true, but the other thing that happened, you could have bad things happen in place, which bring you down, too.
You can have scandals of various kinds. You can have a lot of problems that occurred there. Because they occur in athletics, they're more visible. The same thing can happen for an ordinary student.
Brian Beckcom: Yeah, good point.
Dr. R. Bowen Loftin: And guess what happens? The press picks up only one of those, not the other. So, you've got a lot of negative potential, too. So, I paid attention to the activity of athletics very much so because of that reputational thing. Also because of money. It's a big part of your budget, too. You got to worry about that as well.
But you brought up a really good point here. I think it's very reasonable to balance those things. Now, there are some sports where you recruit student athletes who are top notch. If you look at your baseball team, your softball team, your soccer team, you're going to find he had good grades, doing very well, and the scholarships they get in those sports are helping them get their education done. It's a very wonderful thing for them. If you look at football and men's basketball, women's basketball sometimes, people ask questions about that.
Brian Beckcom: Yeah.
Dr. R. Bowen Loftin: One of the things I had to do here was to grant waivers to athletics to admit students who would not meet even the minimum criteria at Texas A&M for admission. That was something I had to do every year. And I did that with a great deal of care and thought, because I said, “Why should I do this?” And I realized that because of our size and our visibility and our conference affiliation, we had extraordinary resources to devote to those young men and women who might come here with less than the best preparation. But we gave them extra to be able to help them be successful here at A&M. It isn’t a matter of lack of integrity. It was not cheating at all. It was giving them a lot of assistance to overcome what they had brought with them here in terms of lacks.
Brian Beckcom: And I can tell you, Dr. Loftin, I can give you a firsthand perspective of this, okay? I know exactly what you were talking about. By the way, I was a student – I was a columnist for the Battalion for two years when I was at A&M and I wrote an article about – there was a professor from Rice who basically wrote something about how we were emphasizing – not us, just A&M, but colleges in general, emphasizing academics too much. And I wrote an article, I guess, man, almost 30 years ago, talking about how athletes and athletics adds a lot to the college experience.
But from a firsthand perspective, I didn't study much in high school cause I didn't need to and I showed up to A&M and thank God I was on the basketball team because we had study hall for two hours a night, Sunday through Thursday, with the assistant coaches watching us. We had access to tutors. I can tell you for absolute 100% sure fact that there were players on the team that I played with that probably would not have gotten in had they not been basketball players. Every single one of those guys, to a man, graduated and is successful.
And so. You know, I think sometimes we get caught up a little bit in the, you know, the objective, the grade point average and the SAT and stuff like that. And we forget about the fact that just because somebody, like you're saying, maybe didn't have the best preparation when they were in high school. I mean, my kids right now have tutors. I can afford to get them tutors anytime they want. They go to a very competitive, wealthy school, public school in Houston. Most kids don't have that opportunity. And so. I guess the question I would ask is, are we gonna cut off good kids that have a lot of potential just because they happen to be athletes and maybe haven't had the best preparation? So, I'm 110% with you on this, Dr. Loftin.
Dr. R. Bowen Loftin: Well, it’s something you really care about. I can't say every school does that. But we have the resources. I mean the Power 5 Conferences have the resources to be able to devote to students who come with less preparation than they really should have and help them be successful here.
Now, not every student athlete graduates. Most do. But some don't. If you've ever watched me at graduation, I had something I did very special, in my opinion. I would have each student athlete who was graduating and walking across the stage for diploma, had them checked on the list of the names being read. I would tell the reader, I’d say, “Look, when this person shows up, take two or three more seconds before you read the next name.”
I was doing 17 a minute. I graduated over 75,000 students here at Texas A&M. I shook every hand, bumped every fist, had hugged, whatever I had to do, okay? I did it. But my point is that I had the reader pause and slow down for every student athlete and I would talk to them face-to-face. I would say, “Look, thank you for being a student at Texas A&M and thank you for being an athlete at Texas A&M. You brought great honor to our school here. I know you were doing two full-time jobs.”
Brian Beckcom: Absolutely. And we talked – Coach Sherill and I talked about this, too. I mean, people do not realize, and I had this experience for a short period of time, but when you're a college athlete, like you just said, it is two full-time jobs. People do not understand how hard these men and women work. I mean, they have almost no free time. Plus, they got to make their grades. Plus they gotta train. Plus they gotta sleep. And eventually they gotta have some free time. So, it is a massive commitment. And I have, you know, obviously I'm a little bit biased about this, but I have a tremendous amount of respect for athletes who perform at a high level and also graduate.
Dr. R. Bowen Loftin: Exactly. I fully agree with you. And that's what made possible for me to sort of let these people in who wouldn't get in any other way. They got here because of their skillsets. As a student athlete. They graduated, though, because of their skillset as a student and an athlete. And that was important to me to have them graduate.
A handful I know personally didn't graduate and that was a shame, that the pros get in our way sometimes. The NBA especially it can be a problem because of how low they can go down the ladder here to get a student to come to the NBA. If we had a better circumstance there, that would really enhance their sort of motivation to stay in school until they get a degree.
But we have many more who graduate before they're even done with their fourth year. And there are fifth-year students in here. Like, we have many like that. If they register earlier on, they can do great. They can get a master’s degree. One of our students walked off the stage here with a master's degree who played athletics here. Think about that.
Brian Beckcom: That's awesome.
Dr. R. Bowen Loftin: They got that done because they got a scholarship here and they got it done because they worked hard, and we owe them that particular opportunity if we can give it to them, to not only get a degree but get two degrees.
Brian Beckcom: Let me ask you this question, Dr. Loftin. Do you have a couple more minutes? I want to ask you two or three more questions if you've got a little bit more time.
Dr. R. Bowen Loftin: My time is yours, sir.
Brian Beckcom: Okay. So, what were – back to the move to the SEC. What were the two or three biggest leadership challenges that you had to overcome to make that happen?
Dr. R. Bowen Loftin: Well, there were different things. 2010 was a time of politics and of trying to juggle the issues with our friends in Austin. I learned during that whole midst of activity that somebody in my staff was actually talking to people over there and telling him what was going on. So, the narrative of the entire activity was driven by Austin, not by us. And that made us come out in a pretty bad light compared to them in this whole process. You look back at the press coverage of the day.
The leadership challenge in the next year was how to avoid that. So, I was very – I handled it very differently in year two. I was very careful who I let in on all that was going on. I got people mad at me because they weren't being read in on what was happening. But we kept it to ourselves and we wrote the narrative.
And I have to mention Jason Cook, who was my VP of Communications and Marketing at the time who now has the same job at Baylor as my dad. Jason was the real person who crafted the message in 2010. 2011, rather. He also crafted the social media message behind Johnny Manzell getting the Heisman. And Johnny was a great athlete. I'll say that first. But I think Jason is the one that architected the media campaign that led to the votes he had to have to become the Heisman trophy brand.
So, Jason, we owe a lot to here at Texas A&M for both helping us in 2011 with our messaging so we had people on our side for a change wanting us to be successful, and also ultimately helped Johnny get a singular trophy, basically. So, you know, we had people like that, but I would say the leadership challenge there was trying to change our approach one year to the next and exclude many people who had been part of the conversation before, because I did not think I could trust everyone in that group to be able to let this thing stay in-house. I regret, in many respects, having to have done that, but I had no choice about that, basically.
The other thing was trying to be persistent in the face of failure. I’ll never forget the night I was sitting in my house here with some of the board members when I got a call from Bernie Machen. Bernie was the University of Florida president at the time and chaired the SEC board of directors. And he called me to tell me that they were going to table our application for admission to the SEC because of the objections of Baylor. And the potential of Baylor litigating this matter out here. So, that was a hard thing to take. I was very, very upset by that.
Jim Wilson, one of our regions at the time was a really good guy to help me get past that and talk me through it, help me get over it. But then I had a conversation with Dan Beebe and the Baylor chancellor president, and my leadership failure there was to lose my temper. I got upset when Ken Starr told me that they would be ill-served by our leaving the conference and our leaving the conference here and they stayed behind. I just said, “Look, you'll be fine. You'll be fine.” But he said some things to me then that I just kind of lost my temper about, and I said a few things I shouldn't have. That was my failure as a leader right there.
So, my lesson to you, I want to make sure you understand, is always watch what you're thinking and doing here. If you're a leader, you can't afford to lose your temper. You can't afford to have your temper be what guides your words and your actions. So, that one little singular moment there, telephone conversation between three people late one night, was a time when I didn't follow my own rules and regretted it, basically.
I saw Ken Starr many times after that and we got over it, basically. But my point is, a leader is going to be challenged. It's a very difficult job to be a leader of a large public university. I've done it twice. And in every one of those jobs, I've been challenged in great ways, and I've learned that keeping your cool is the most important thing you can do. Never lose your temper, never react emotionally in terms of your words or your actions and you will be better off because of it as well as your school.
Brian Beckcom: How do you deal with a constant – because if you're in a position of leading a big university like the University of Missouri or A&M or any big institution, you are going to get – you're going to have plenty of critics. How did you deal with the public criticism. Do you just ignore it? Do you listen to it? Do you let it get to you? Like what was your mechanism for dealing with all the public criticism?
Dr. R. Bowen Loftin: Two things. When I first got A&M, and I'd been the head of the Galveston campus for four years before I came here. But Galveston's a pretty small place. I made mistakes there and I got by with it, okay? It’s not a place people focused on a lot. Got here. It changed.
So, my first few weeks here as president – interim president, actually – I used to read the local paper here, the Eagle. And the Eagle would have articles everyday about Texas A&M. And I made the mistake of reading the comments. You learn right away that people who don't give you their real name will say anything.
But my first rule was then if somebody isn't going to give you their name, don't listen to them. So, I mean, I realize people can give you anonymously good advice sometimes, but I feel as a matter of principle that if someone wants to tell me I'm wrong, okay. But tell me who you are. Don't hide behind some pseudonym you put in there and on the paper or whatever comment board you're on right then to hide who you are. Because people who don't have that lack the courage and I shouldn't be listening to those who lack courage. So that's number one right there.
Number two, you have to read, and social media is a place – I was one of the few presidents who really used it a lot, when I was here and also in Missouri. Most presidents don't do it because it's a two-edged sword. You can learn a lot, but you can also hurt a lot because of it. But what I learned is this: If I follow a cross section of students on something like Twitter or Instagram now. YikYak probably was not the best. It has challenges, too.
But my point is simply that I followed a not just randomly, I followed a cross section of my students. Male, female, freshmen, senior, all the majors. I tried to have about a thousand or so students that I followed that I thought represented our student body in a pretty comprehensive way. And I spent two hours a day typically on my time reading what they said. Not to me necessarily, but to each other. And that told me so much about the view of our campus the students had. I would call a vice-president and I'd say “You got to fix this.” They would say, “How you know that?” I’d say, “I know what's going on here on this campus.” And I had these thousand kids doing it for me.
Also, I allow those students to directly connect to me. I got a DM, I got hundreds a day from these students, okay? And I responded. I read them and I responded. It took me another hour a day probably just to do that. So, maybe three hours a day, I was on social media and reading their comments to their network of acquaintances, but also dealing with their direct messages to me.
And that was the only way I could do it. I couldn't have a meeting with them individually in my office. That would take up the entire day. But I could take an hour of quiet time in the evenings typically and I could respond to every one of those messages every single day. And that was a way to really build trust on the part of the students in what you were doing. They wouldn't always agree with you, but at least they would recognize you listened to them individually, personally.
And that kind of rapport I thought was important for us to have. I couldn't do that without social media. I did that in part because of me. When I was a student here, our president was a man named General Earl Rudder. He was a great leader here, no question about that, but I never would have dreamed of going up to him and saying, “General Rudder, sir, I'm Bowen Loftin, let me have a selfie with you.” It wouldn’t have happened, okay? It wouldn't have happened.
He talked to very few students in my knowledge. He talked to a few student leaders and that was it. He was very divorced from us. He also closed down the Battalion one day. Do you know that?
Brian Beckcom: Really? I did not know that. Really?
Dr. R. Bowen Loftin: The Battalion published an op-ed that criticized something he did, and his response was to close the paper.
Brian Beckcom: Oh man. Geez.
Dr. R. Bowen Loftin: There’s another whole story about that I can tell you. But my point simply is that I said to myself, “If I'm ever a leader of a university, I won't be like that.” I admire him and respect him in every way you can imagine but I didn't see him as somebody who would relate to students. And I wanted to be that somebody, and I was that somebody from my time here at A&M and Missouri.
Patterns in Leadership
Brian Beckcom: Let me ask you this. To me, this is a really interesting question as it relates to leadership. I think this is my 31st or 32nd podcast, and I've talked to some unbelievable people and I've seen patterns emerge. And one of the patterns I've seen emerge, Dr. Loftin, is the leaders that I talk to tend to be humble.
Now you also, to be in a position like you're in, or Jackie Sherill was in, or Bucky Richardson, you have to have some ego. You have to have some confidence in your ability. So, you never, at least my impression was, and I think a lot of people agree with this, you never took yourself too seriously. Like you were kind of a down to earth guy.
Now, Dr. Bowen Loftin has some ego. You don't get to the position you get to without having some confidence in your abilities, right? But you always seem like a, I don't know what cliche you want to use. Salt of the earth, down to earth, very approachable, whatever cliché. You just never took yourself that seriously.
So, talk about, Dr. Loftin, the balance between having a healthy ego that enables you to accomplish some big, meaningful things while at the same time not letting your ego take control of things.
Dr. R. Bowen Loftin: You have to have a certain gravitas to be able to be in this role. You can't avoid that. To be taken seriously by those who are out there you got to speak to you from time to time and give direction to and to lead, you've got to have gravitas. And to some extent, the ego helps you have that. My wife beat mine out on me a long time ago. Again, you have to have that.
But I think you're exactly right. Don't take yourself too seriously. My message to you and your staff, I sent you a picture of me. You probably didn't pick up on, but it's me shoveling horse manure. So, when I got here as president, I talked to the commandant of the Corps of Cadets and I said, “My wife is an equestrian. She loves to ride horses. How do you feel about her riding in with the Parsons Mounted Calvary, who precede the Corps of Cadets when they march into Kyle Field before a game. Not this year, obviously, but that's what you used to be able to do.
And the commandant at the time was a retired three-star general. He said, “Sir, you can't do that. It would demean the office of the president for you to allow your wife to ride in there, for you to get down from the reviewing stand and pick up a shovel and pick up the horse manure her horse put out while she rode in front of you.” I said, “Sir, it is the office of the president.” You as a president are going to be shoveling it every day. People's stuff every day. And you've got to be able to do that and make fun of yourself a little bit, to be able to be human. To be real. To put yourself in other people's places.
If you get too much ego, too much hubris, you cannot become the other person. You have to be able to be that other person to understand where they're coming from and be able to work with them in an effective way. And so, ego gets in the way of that too often. And so, I said, “I do things every day to avoid taking myself too seriously. Including shoveling horse manure behind my wife's horse.” Okay? Symbolically and really.
But the other thing I would do is leave the office every day. I would never – in this job you have in a big place, you can have every waking moment consumed by reading, signing, meetings, the whole bit. Every day, all day. So, I made a point every day of leaving the office for at least an hour and walking over to the MSC center. Walking over to coldest [1:28:30] where the student offices were for student government and organizations. Walking out to the, I mean [1:28:35], Plaza. And just talking to students face-to-face. Just being out there, sitting down on the edge of a bench, and just talk to the person next to you for a couple of minutes and ask them how they're doing and get a sense of how they are. Go to the dining hall for lunch and have a table of students with you to eat lunch with.
Sometimes, they wouldn't know who I was. But it was really, really helpful for me to be able to be there and for them to react to me in a way that was of equals. Not superior to inferior but equals. That's what they were, in my opinion. They were the reason we were here.
A final comment would be this: It's so easy in these jobs to get consumed by the mechanics of the job. You forget why you're here. And I work every day with students face-to-face just for an hour or so and the social media work I did was to continually remind me of who we were serving and why we were serving them. It’s too easy to forget.
Your staff will consume – your schedule drives you, not the other way around. You determine your schedule. It controls you. You got the governor, you've got the board, you've got major donors. You've got all these problems to solve out there and you can be totally consumed by that and forget why you're there. And so, my point to you simply is that a university president or chancellor needs to remember every day why they're there.
Brian Beckcom: There's another pattern. I was talking to District Attorney of Coryell County Dusty Boyd and he made the comment. He said, and I'm paraphrasing, he said, “You know, I know this show is called Lessons from Leaders,” but he goes, “I really think it should be called Lessons from Servants, in a way.” He goes, “I consider my job to serve the people that voted me.” And so, what I've heard from a lot of different people that I've talked to, Dr. Loftin, is what you just talked about. At the end of the day, if you're in a position of leadership, are you in it for yourself? Or you're in it to serve the people you've been appointed to serve?
And, you know, it's like these Marine Corps combat officers I've talked to. Their mission is to get their men and women back home safely. I mean, that is their mission. It is to serve the men and women. It's not for the kudos that they get for themselves. It's not to, you know, see what they can do for themselves. It's to see what they can do for others.
Learning about Leadership
Brian Beckcom: Well, one or two more questions before I let you go, Dr. Loftin. Who – how did you, how did a small town, relatively small in stature physics guy become such a good leader? Like, who were your mentors? What did you do to learn about how to become such a positive, optimistic, leader? Somebody that so many people look up to. Like, how did you learn how to do all this stuff?
Dr. R. Bowen Loftin: Well, my dad was an example. He wasn't a leader by your definition of it. He never had a supervisory job in his life. He was a laborer. He ran a piece of machinery called a dragline. It was his skill. And he was satisfied with that. In his spare time, if he had any, he ran cattle with his brother and made a few bucks there occasionally.
But my dad was a people person. My dad could make friends with you in two minutes. Enter a room, and even though he was smaller. He was shorter than me, okay. He's a short guy. Not educated. Again, sixth grade education. But he knew people. He could read people and he knew how to connect with them. And so, within a moment of meeting you, he would know a lot about you. He'd figure out, you know, who you are, where you come from, what drives you. And he would make that conversation one you'd remember.
That's a skill he had. I don't know how he got it. I never asked how he got that skill, but he had it. And I watched that. You watch your father do these things and emulate him in some ways. And so that's one aspect of me, is this ability to pay attention to people. If you talk to somebody I've talked to, they would say, “He was listening to me. He was paying attention to me.”
And I think that's an incredibly important skill for every leader to have is to be able to listen every person trying to talk to you. Unless it’s a cacophony. And give them your full attention. Don't just simply pretend you're listening to them. Listen to them. You may not agree. They may make you angry. But you've got to tell them in your unspoken and spoken word both that you are hearing what they're saying. There are ways to do that and ways not to do that. So, that's one aspect right there.
Secondly, you've already mentioned it. Don't take yourself too seriously and don't be afraid to do any job you have to do. One thing I did with that shoveling horse manure was just showing people that there was no job too small or dirty that I wouldn't be willing to do it. And you've got to be able to lead people by letting them know that even though they might have more skills than you have in terms of doing some particular task, but it's not beneath you to do it. Don't put yourself on a ladder that says you're above the tasks you ask others to do. Maybe they're better at it than you are and therefore that's why they're doing it. But you don't want to tell them it's beneath you.
Brian Beckcom: Dr. Loftin, you said something earlier there. I call it active listening. And sometimes I'll tell my clients before, you know, I'll be getting ready for a deposition or something like that and I'll say, “You got to ask, you got to listen to the question.” But don't listen to the question the way I listen to my wife sometimes where I'm already formulating in my head the answer that I want to give. I mean, really actively listen because you know, not only is it good as a leader to really listen actively, but it also, man, I'll tell you what, I think one of the fundamental desires most people have is to feel like they're heard. Like, to feel like their concerns, their needs, their wants and desires are heard.
And the other thing, when you talk about shoveling horse poo, you know, when I first got to work, I started a big firm called Fulbright and Jaworski, and one of my mentors, a guy named Reagan Simpson, who was a partner at the time. A very, very prominent lawyer. He used to say, “You need to go make your own copies some of the time. You need to do some of the stuff that, you know, you have a staff to do, but you need to know how to do all of this stuff yourself, because you got to show everybody that you're willing to do the same thing that everybody else is willing to do.”
I was talking to a Marine Corps officer that said “I never gave my men an order to do something that I would not have been willing to do myself.”
Dr. R. Bowen Loftin: That’s exactly right.
Brian Beckcom: Yeah. So, well, Dr. Loftin, I've taken far more of your time than we reserved, but I got to tell you a couple of things before I let you go. So, first of all, back when we were making the move to the SEC, there were, and I know you know this already, but there were thousands of us that were just so happy that we had somebody with your backbone to lead us into this truly 100 plus year decision. I mean, it took so much fortitude. It took so much effort. It took so much backbone, because you took a lot of flak from a lot of different places, a lot of different people. And there was a lot of pressure on you. And I just cannot imagine.
And I know that I'm speaking on behalf of thousands of Aggies. I cannot imagine how we could have possibly had a better leader at that time. I mean, we are so lucky as Aggies that Dr. Bowen Loftin was in charge at the time that – I would argue it was the most momentous time in A&M history because of the consequences of that decision, because of long-term consequences of that decision.
So, I just want to let you know how much I and others look up to you. How much we still look back and think about, man, what a phenomenal job Dr. Loftin and the other people that worked with you did navigating that decision.
And I'll ask you maybe one final question, Dr. Loftin. And I've asked a lot of my guests this question. We're in difficult times right now. Pandemic, racial unrest, police issues, politics are crazy, things like that. We've got an election coming up soon. And things are just hard for people. So, give us your kind of outlook over the next six, eight, 12 months. Like, what are you telling people that – cause, you know, for example, I'm telling my kids, “You gotta be mentally flexible.” Like, mental flexibility is a big thing in my house. Resilience is a big thing in my house right now. So, what are you telling the people that you're around about what the future holds?
Dr. R. Bowen Loftin: Well, there's some pretty upset people right now on both sides of the spectrum. I mean, I know that I have friends that don't necessarily fall into political back of your piles [1:38:00] exactly. So, I hear all of it and I have a couple of things I tell them. I say, “First of all, this too shall pass.” I mean, if you know history at all, you know that this country has gone through a lot of turmoil, politically, over and over again. We kind of forget about it for a while. We have a decade or two of quietness and people think this is all new. It's never happened before this way. We've had just a kind of divisive politics you're hearing today 150 years ago that we have right now. So, that's one thing to have in mind. Have perspective that this is not a singular moment in our history. This is something that we've been through before and somehow this place has continued and even prospered in spite of that.
So, I don't have a negative, I mean, whoever gets elected next month, I don't have a negative view of either one of those possibilities. I have my one I'll vote for, obviously, but I believe whoever gets elected, the university – the country will still survive. And it will still be able to find its muddled way to the future. That's just the way we are here. We are a resilient nation. We are put together by some very wise people who had some very, very good thoughts about how to govern and they got that because they looked at all the governance going on in the world at their time and tried to pick the very best elements of that and put it together in a new nation. And did a darn good job of that, in my opinion.
So, I have great faith that we're going to be able to get through this current situation here of great divisiveness and great rhetoric on both sides and still be okay in many people's minds. So, that's why I would tell people. Just don't lose your own integrity, your own ideas, your own concepts of what we should be doing here. Have them and promote them to those around you, but just realize that because we don't all of us agree on one thing, that's not a bad thing.
We’ve been there before, over and over and over again, from the beginning of our nation to the current day, this has happened many times. And not all exactly the same way, but the kind of divisive politics we see right now has been a repetitive feature of America's landscape. And we cannot forget that. And yet we do. We just don't have a very good way to look backwards unless you read history enough. And I do that. I try to read history enough to really know how things used to be.
So, I have great faith in us. It's a moment and we’re all uncomfortable, perhaps, in some respects. Okay. It’s going to pass.
Brian Beckcom: It'll pass. Well, that's a great way to end the show, Dr. Loftin. I really sincerely, truly appreciate you giving me all this time. Like I said, you're one of a kind. I mean, one of a kind. You're a small-town boy from right outside Navasota, became a doctor of physics and also led one of the biggest public institutions of higher learning in the country, and just a fascinating, fascinating biography. And, you know, really the epitome of the exact type of person that I wanted to feature on this podcast when I started this thing four and a half months ago.
So, Dr. Loftin, great to have you on, man. Thank you so much for who you are and for everything you've done. And if I get up to College Station for a game this year, maybe we can grab a beer or grab something to eat or something like that.
Dr. R. Bowen Loftin: Brian. Thanks.
Brian Beckcom: Thank you, Dr. Loftin.