COLLEGE STATION — A month into this year’s fall semester, Texas A&M University senior Ben Fisher got an email that took him by surprise. It was an invitation to the College Station home of interim President Mark Welsh III for a barbecue dinner with other student leaders.

When Fisher arrived, Welsh and his wife, Betty, ushered the students into their massive, white stone home, where they had set tables around the house for students to sit and eat. The couple gave tours of their home and invited other administrators from across campus to come and mingle with the students.

Over brisket and sausage, Welsh, who had served in the interim role for less than two months at that point, reiterated that he wanted to better understand students’ perspectives and priorities.

“It was incredibly personable,” Fisher said.

On Friday, the Texas A&M Board of Regents gave the first OK to make Welsh’s interim title as president a permanent one, voting unanimously to name him the sole finalist for the position. The vote kicks off a 21-day mandatory waiting period before they can officially appoint him the next president of Texas A&M.

Welsh, who was dean of the Bush School of Government and Public Service, has served in an interim role since July, when Texas A&M University System Chancellor John Sharp called him to help him clean up a major mess at the flagship university, which found itself embroiled in two employment scandals, one of which led the former president, M. Katherine Banks, to resign.

In July, The Texas Tribune reported that under Banks, the school watered down its job offer to journalism professor Kathleen McElroy after some board members raised concerns about her perceived liberal credentials. She ultimately turned down the job and settled with the system for $1 million after the hiring fiasco.

Soon after, the Tribune reported that the school placed a pharmacology professor on paid leave hours after she was accused by a politically connected student of criticizing Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick during a lecture, sparking concerns of political interference in university operations and threaten academic freedom.

Faculty were distraught, with professors going as far as to open a faculty meeting this summer with a moment of silence to recognize that a part of the university had “died.” Angry alumni were clamoring for answers.

Welsh, who was one of four finalists for the president’s role when Banks was hired in 2021, was tapped to lead the university as it conducted a national search for a new president. After nearly four months on the job, Sharp recommended earlier this week that the regents name Welsh as the permanent president, forging a national search as originally intended.

The board met in executive session for a little under two hours Friday morning and voted to approve Welsh without discussion.

“The Board is confident in General Welsh’s abilities to take Texas A&M to even greater heights,” Board Chair Bill Mahomes said in a press release. “Everything points to him being the perfect person for this pivotal moment in the history of our beloved flagship.”

Welsh said in the release that he was honored to be named finalist.

“While I’m excited by the possibility of leading this remarkable institution in a more permanent capacity, I value the comprehensive decision-making process that will occur over the next few weeks,” he said.

Ever since the university system’s Board of Regents appointed him interim president, the former combat pilot has largely navigated the 77,000-student university out of turbulent airspace and into clearer skies.

Since July, Welsh has been on a nonstop tour to try to rebuild the trust that slowly eroded over the past few years and reinstill the sense within students, faculty and staff that their voice is necessary to move A&M forward.

“The short-term goals were to make sure that I did everything I could to kind of get the university reconnected with itself,” Welsh told the Tribune in an interview Wednesday. “Open up lines of communication that I think we’re a little bit frayed, and try and help relieve some of the frustration that was in place because of that less than ideal communication.”

Once approved, Welsh would come to the permanent position having built up a tremendous amount of goodwill among many faculty and students, who say he has provided a much-needed steady hand during a time of uncertainty.

Faculty say they appreciate that he seeks out their input. When he makes a decision they disagree with, he explains his rationale, they say. Students say they’ve appreciated his regular email updates — an average of at least one per week since he started — and they notice the increased level of transparency about university operations.

“It’s amazing to see how much he actually cares about the students and how much he’s trying to make a change for A&M,” senior Katie Hornick said.

While some faculty feel the system should commit to conducting a national search the next time it needs a president — and guarantee more room for faculty feedback in the hiring process — many professors and students agree with the decision to appoint Welsh as permanent president now.

“General Welsh has almost uniform positive evaluations from those who know him, who worked with him, who agree with him, who disagree with him,” medical professor Mark Sicilio said at a Faculty Senate meeting this week. “This is the best of a situation, and I wouldn’t even call it a bad situation because he is truly — based on my exposure and interaction with him — a remarkable individual.”

Fisher, the senior, said he’s unsurprised the school would tap Welsh to lead the school after a turbulent summer. At one point during the student barbecue in September, he watched the four-star general and former leader of the U.S. Air Force quickly get down on his hands and knees to clean up a smaller mess when a student accidentally knocked a bunch of utensils and toothpicks onto the floor.

“He’s helping scrub some mess up to take care of it so that someone else didn’t have to,” Fisher recalled. “For the president of your institution to kneel down to help clean something up is a pretty strong statement that he really values selfless service.”

A military background

Welsh, a San Antonio native, is quick to say he is not an Aggie — a clarification meant as a show of respect toward those who did go to the university — though he was raised by an Aggie father, watched five of his siblings graduate from A&M and raised four children to bleed maroon and white. Instead, he attended the U.S. Air Force Academy.

“The only reason he didn’t come to Texas A&M was because he wanted to fly jets,” said Frank Ashley III, acting dean of the Bush School, who worked closely under Welsh for the past seven years.

After graduating in 1976, Welsh built a more than four-decade career in the Air Force before retiring from military service in 2016.

Welsh started out as a command pilot, then served in various roles like training commander and adviser to the director of the Central Intelligence Agency on military issues. He served as commander of NATO’s Air Command and was the 34th Commander of the U.S. Air Forces in Europe before heading to Washington, D.C., where President Barack Obama appointed him Chief of Staff of the Air Force and a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in 2012. He moved to College Station to serve as the dean of the Bush School the same year he retired.

Welsh had zero experience working in academia when he arrived. But he understood Aggieland, a place steeped in military customs that values its traditions and where there is a deep commitment to upholding the university’s core values — loyalty, integrity, excellence, leadership, selfless service and respect — which resonate with the armed forces’ mentality.

University leaders “don’t have to be an academic, but they have to have an appreciation of what the academics do,” Ashley said. “I think that’s very, very important. And I think if there’s one thing that Mark learned very fast, it was that appreciation.”

Welsh said he saw similarities between how to work with those in the military and faculty.

“Walk into a room full of Navy SEALs, or Army Rangers, or Air Force fighter pilots and tell them how they’re going to risk death tomorrow, and see how that goes for you,” Welsh said. “They need a voice, they need to be part of the discussion leading up to what we plan to do. Their expertise needs to be considered in planning. They are the pros.”

As dean, Welsh increased the Bush School endowment by 20% and added a teaching site in Washington, D.C. He would often walk the halls of the Bush School proactively seeking out faculty and students, Ashley said. It became customary for him to pop his head in the open door of a faculty office to check in, or he would plop down next to a group of students to ask what they were working on.

Reed Russell, a graduate student in the Bush School, said he appreciated how often Welsh made himself available to students during public forums, where he took questions directly.

At a recent event with alumni, Welsh repeated the comment that he is not an Aggie, but this time someone interrupted him to say he was just as much an Aggie as anyone else there.

“For an Aggie to say that of another person who’s serving this institution is very high praise,” said Fisher, the senior class president. “That is not lip service.”

Read the full story in the Texas Tribune here.

Texas Tribune Reporting Fellow Caroline Wilburn contributed to this article.

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