Texas A&M president, not paper, acted irresponsibly

Mariano Castillo, editor in chief of Texas A&M University’s newspaper, had one hell of a first day.

The day he took the reins at The Battalion was the same day a cartoon appeared in the paper and touched off a controversy that has sadly become almost familiar at colleges and universities nationwide. The cartoon featured a black mother telling her son, who had just failed a test, that if he wasn’t careful he would end up working an airport security job.

Though the cartoon was meant to be a jab at lax standards for airport security workers, the controversy began when the African American Student Coalition at the university took issue with what it called a stereotypical depiction and demanded an apology from the paper.

This, obviously, is not a situation unique to College Station, Texas, nor was it wrong or unprecedented for the AASC to express indignation. They were merely exercising the same First Amendment rights The Battalion correctly used when it ran the cartoon. These things happen across the nation almost monthly, including at this University on occasion. The Battalion had the right to print it and the AASC had the right to speak against it.

What sets this instance apart from most others was Texas A&M President Ray Bowen’s shamefully political reaction. Instead of standing up for higher education, open discourse and a marketplace of ideas, Bowen almost immediately issued a statement condemning the cartoon. His statement came in the form of a letter to the editor printed in The Battalion on Thursday, three days after the cartoon ran.

“It is disappointing, then, when events happen that diminish our leadership role in the larger society and divide the Aggie family,” he wrote. Bowen goes on to state that the cartoon “clearly played on negative stereotypes of African Americans.” Aside from the fact that the cartoon did not “clearly” do anything of the sort, his irresponsible, reactionary statements are hardly befitting of the office he occupies and serve the issue surrounding the cartoon instead of the students who have taken issue with it.

As a university president, Bowen’s job is to represent the ideals of higher learning, of which one of the most important components is honest discourse. His self-interests should come in at a distant second, at best.

However, the rest of his letter seems to show that his desire to be well liked is almost as strong as his sense of duty to the university he serves. The next paragraph of his letter makes it clear that he recognizes The Battalion’s autonomy and rights as a member of the free press, but he is quick to point out, “I deplore the messages conveyed by this cartoon Ö”

As a citizen, Bowen is well within his rights to say this. But as a university president – a position charged with guarding the best interests of all students – he should have had more presence of mind. And it is only fair to note that here at the University we are lucky to have such a president.

In College Station, however, it is Bowen – not Castillo – who made a mistake. And it is Bowen who owes that university an apology.