Swinish Behavior

Texas A&M's attempt to push an animal research center on a black neighborhood has raised a sour smell in College Station

In early January 1994, a woman driving along a road near her home outside of College Station noticed something she hadn't seen before: a quartet of 8 1/2-by-11-inch signs duct-taped to the fence posts of Texas A&M University's beef cattle research center. The year-old center sat on 580 acres only a few hundred feet away from some homes, and while the bawling of weaning calves occasionally disturbed the neighbors, nobody had ever made a formal complaint. Many of them worked for A&M, the area's largest employer, and they had learned to accommodate themselves to the university's needs.

For some reason, though, the duct-taped signs sent a small wave of concern through the woman. So she pulled off the road for a closer look. What she saw was a notice that A&M had applied for a state permit to add an animal research center to its beef operation. A call to a number on the signs brought even more information. The research center was planned to be bigger -- much bigger -- than the beef operation. Among its inhabitants would not only be extra cattle, but also sheep, goats and around 1,500 breeding sows and their piglets.

The woman was stunned. The smell from such an operation promised to be horrific, and the animal sounds and threat of pollution immensely greater than that coming from the existing beef farm. The research center was just the sort of construction that could have a serious impact not only on property values, but also on the quality of life of its neighbors. It was also just the sort of construction that the neighbors felt they should have been told of up front, rather than having to find out about accidentally.

In the more than two years since that fateful pause by the side of the road, the reason A&M neglected to inform the residents of its plans has been the object of hot debate. A&M insists that it simply overlooked the matter, and that it was no big deal. The people who live in the Brushy Community, the nearly 100-year-old settlement most likely to be affected by A&M's research center, have some other ideas. The fact that the Brushy Community is primarily African-American has led some to accusations of racism, and a federal suit that was filed last August. But while not discounting the racial angle, others see something equally pernicious at play: a company town mentality that suggests that what's good for A&M is good for the community, and that people who know where their bread is buttered would be wise to keep their mouths shut. After 24 months of what many in the Brushy Community feel to be fruitless attempts to reason with A&M, they believe they can already smell something wafting over from the still incomplete research center. Only it's not the pungent odor of livestock. It's the stink of institutional arrogance.

The notion of institutional arrogance, especially when it comes to A&M, doesn't shock Ruth and Al Schaffer, A&M sociologists who have spent their careers studying community power and leadership -- and who have spent the last two years struggling to get their employer to do right by the neighbors of the planned animal research center. The Schaffers themselves are two of those neighbors, though since their house is east of the livestock center and buffered by woods, they probably aren't positioned to suffer from the odor brought by the prevailing southerly winds. They do, however, worry about contamination of their well.

That's why the Schaffers agreed to lead the Brushy Community residents who have banded together in a group called ROPL, an acronym for Residents Opposed to Pigs and Livestock. Ruth Schaffer, a short, mild-mannered woman with straight, neatly cropped gray hair, has turned her dining-room table into a tactical center where she collects a growing assortment of carefully cataloged files about A&M's actions. Bryan-College Station, Schaffer says, reminds her of company towns such as Hershey, Pennsylvania, or the textile mill towns of the Carolinas. With an annual payroll of $365 million, A&M dominates Bryan-College Station, and lets the community know about it through annual press releases on its economic impact on the area's shops, restaurants and hotels. "What you're talking about here is who controls jobs," says Schaffer, "and 95 percent of the people involved [in fighting the livestock center] have worked at some time for the university."

At least one of the protesting residents who works in an academic position at A&M, she adds, has received threatening anonymous phone calls and has lost a promotion. That's just one example of the tensions that have been generated since A&M made a decision that, to the university's administration, likely seemed a simple one. In 1991, when George Bush agreed to place his presidential library on 90 acres adjacent to the existing A&M pig farm, it became clear that the farm, which was set for eventual relocation anyway, had to be moved relatively soon. The 580-acre property near the Brushy Community surely appeared ideal: situated next to the Brazos River, and bounded on the north by Highway 60, the site is only eight miles from the campus and just ten minutes from the university's veterinary school, making it convenient to students and faculty. The gently rolling hills and good grass were other pluses, as was the fact that A&M already owned the property.

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