(Editor’s note: To help the Aggie community get better acquainted with new President Michael K. Young, the editors of Texas A&M Today asked him to share his thoughts about Texas A&M, and discuss personal and professional experiences that have profoundly impacted his life and career.)
How has your Aggie experience been so far?
Before we arrived we received a lot of emails and phone calls telling us how much we would love it in Aggieland. Friends near and far congratulated us on our opportunity to come to Texas A&M and told us we would enjoy the warmth of the community and the culture of helpfulness here. When you pick up and move your entire life on an instinct, a feeling, it can be a little intimidating. Our welcome here has been nothing short of the promises made and we cannot stress enough what comfort that has given us. Every morning we awake and feel affirmed in our choice. This university has true global relevance and we couldn’t be happier to be here in the center of the action with these amazing students and the community that supports them. We feel such gratitude, we really do.
Now that you’ve experienced some Aggies traditions, what are your thoughts?
Texas A&M traditions serve a very important function in connecting generations of Aggies. They are the common language shared by people young and old, whose values hold true over the decades. They have a remarkable function at this university because students, faculty, and the supporting community all understand that these traditions create an identity around ethics and values. For young people just starting out in the creation of their adult selves, these traditions help to guide them toward meaningful things, like service, reverence, and excellence. While they are trying to carve out their professional ambitions, through trial and error sometimes, there are several traditions that can help them form and hold fast to their own identity and become people who others want to emulate. This all seems like a very good thing to us. Traditions should reflect the priorities of the people who hold them and they should be protected. But a tradition should also be considered precious, not a designation that is wildly attached to too many things. We need to preserve traditions that communicate the true Aggie spirit, such as Muster and the 12th Man, and not dilute the beautiful, intergenerational language that is Texas A&M traditions with things that are not part of the timeless ethic of Texas A&M.
How did your career in higher education come about?
When I was a kid, I knew I wanted to be a lawyer. My mother gave me a copy of Louis Nizer’s book, My Life in Court, and together we watched countless episodes of “Perry Mason.” We argued incessantly for arguing’s sake. I attended law school, clerked on the Supreme Court and did everything anyone who intended to be a great litigator would do. I took a job at Columbia because I loved thinking about the relationship between law and human behavior. It turns out I’m a lawyer who just happens to be an academic at heart. My careers in law and higher education have shared the same paths, and while that wasn’t the plan, I feel very, very fortunate to have spent my life doing what I love.
What’s the one thing about you that few people know?
Hmmm. I’m not sure this is very interesting, but I paid my way through college by working as a ski instructor. This was somewhat problematic. I nearly changed my mind about law school because I didn’t want to stop skiing four days a week. Sometimes I imagine myself as a 65-year-old ski bum. And then I imagine myself a very lonely man!
Who do you most admire?
My mother was, and always will be, my preeminent hero. She was a WWII bomber pilot and a force to be reckoned with. She was so passionate about learning and accomplished several Master’s degrees over the course of her life. She was my primary mentor and confidant. There’s not time here to explain how influential she was in my life and career and in the lives and careers of my two brothers, but I have always appreciated her energy for each of us and her helping us all refine our passions.
If you could have dinner with three famous people, who would they be?
Winston Churchill, Franklin Roosevelt, Chief Justice John Marshall
What do you like to do in your free time—to the extent that you have free time?
Marti and I could be better at carving out more time for ourselves. In fact, one of the things that drew us to A&M was a chance to be living in a place that could help us reclaim some of the things we had to “back burner” when we moved to Seattle and the University of Washington. We love having time with our horses and are hoping to bring them here later this fall. Marti humors me on the road bikes and I humor her on the mountain bikes. We both love hiking, trail running and just enjoying scenic walks. Six weeks ago, I underwent knee replacement surgery on both knees, so scenic walks are filling a little more of our time than usual. We haven’t gone to a movie theatre in a couple of years, haven’t hosted a dinner party for personal friends, haven’t enjoyed any gardening, haven’t been alone in our own home since 2011. We are excited to be in a place that can help us re-engage in all of the things we’ve really missed and let us feel a little more at home.
Do you have any pets?
Our dog Quinn is our shadow. We love that dog! Well, everybody loves that dog. He’s very special. We also have three horses. One is a very talented sport horse and two are mustangs that came off the range via the Bureau of Land Management. We will likely bring Riot, the quarter horse that I ride and Vegas, Marti’s highly intuitive mustang out to Texas. Marti’s dad will keep our other mustang with his horses in Utah. She may want to start another young horse here, so I suppose our number may go up. She also keeps threatening to get cows and goats. I don’t mind, really. I find that I enjoy caring for the animals and doing the farm chores as much as she does. It will be nice to have the space to be able to enjoy that stuff on a regular basis instead of doing it on our “vacations.”
If you have a “bucket list,” what’s on it?
The Bucket List question. When I was working in the State Department under Secretary Baker, I turned down working in the African territory in favor of Europe. It seemed like a quieter bet that would preserve my family time. As fate would have it, writing the eventual treaties around German Unification ended up commanding an awful lot of time, while things in Africa stayed relatively quiet over that period by comparison. In retrospect, that was a decision that helped, in no small way, to shape the course of my career. I still haven’t made it to Africa. Marti has promised me a safari trip, and I have promised her a trip to Antarctica. Eventually. Speaking closer to home, now that I have my new knees, I’d like to get back to some court sports and take up golf. We’ll see what we have by way of extra time. I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about a bucket list that doesn’t involve public higher education. It is my passion and a huge part of my life’s work so most things that I would like to do before I make my grand exit have to do with strengthening our young people and using education to make the world a better place. That surely seems overly idealistic, but I am an habitual optimist. Education changes everything.