COLLEGE STATION, TEXAS
Something's rotten at Texas A&M University.
It's a scourge of such magnificent proportions that students say it threatens to shake the very foundations of the school.
For the first time in the university's 125-year history, cheerleaders are building pyramids and doing backflips - with the administration's consent.
It may come as a shock to some outside the state that there is a college in Texas where cheerleaders aren't de rigueur. But here at A&M, where traditions are fiercely guarded by current and former students alike, this pompom-clad clan is far from a welcome sight.
One recent editorial in the student newspaper, The Battalion, calls the squad "a slap in the face" to tradition.
"Bringing cheerleaders into the A&M community begins the slide down a slippery slope that could lead to the loss of the very traditions that help to define the Aggie experience," wrote Kelln Zimmer.
The cheerleading squad became the school's newest student organization this fall. It will represent A&M at collegiate cheerleading competitions across the US.
And even though it will not be allowed to perform at any athletic events, the outrage over its existence has echoed across the grounds upon which some 44,000 students tread.
But to understand why they are so adamantly opposed to cheerleaders, one must understand the history and culture of A&M.
The state's first public institution of higher education opened shortly after the end of the Civil War in 1876, and quickly emerged as an all-male, all-military school. During World Wars I and II, it produced more military officers than any other school, including the service academies.
So from its beginnings, A&M was shaped by the rigid rules and strong traditions of the military.
While membership in the Corps of Cadets became voluntary in 1965, it is still considered "The Founder of Traditions and the Keeper of the Spirit."
Under the cadets' watchful eye, the only practitioners of pep that have ever been allowed on the sidelines are Yell Leaders, five male students who use hand signals to lead fellow Aggies in old Army yells.
All freshman attend practices to learn the hand signals and yells, and the entire student body - also known as the 12th Man - comes together at midnight before each home game to rehearse the yells and get worked up for the next day's scrimmage.
"This long gray line goes back over 125 years now, and the traditions are very important to our students," says David Chapman, Texas A&M University archivist.
So just a couple of weeks after it was formed by sophomore Shannan Johnson, the Fightin' Texas Aggie Competition Cheer Squad - after much student protest - was asked to remove the word "Aggie" from its name. Ms. Johnson, who didn't return calls for this article, has said she has no intention of trying to replace the Yell Leaders. She just wanted to provide another outlet for students to show their school spirit.
This controversy comes at a time when A&M students are especially sensitive to their loss of tradition. The 1999 bonfire collapse that killed 12 people has been an Aggie ritual before each A&M/University of Texas game since 1909.
But with lawsuits mounting by victims' parents over the school's alleged lack of supervision, future bonfires remain in limbo.
Now the possibility - however small - that cheerleaders might one day perform at games is more than most can bear.
Over the course of a few short days, the Battalion's opinion page was inundated with e-mails from current and former students. (Graduates don't consider themselves alumni or ex-Aggies, simply "former students" to indicate their continued affiliation with the school.)
"Our tradition is what sets us apart from other universities. If we give up our long held traditions that truly shape who we are as Aggies ... then we will be another cookie-cutter university with the same tired cheerleaders and tired old band that plays classics like 'Wild Thing.' "
"The Yell Leaders are enough, there is no room for cheerleaders. And if Johnson and her group doesn't like it, Highway 6 runs both ways!! I'm sure t.u. [a derogatory term for A&M rival, the University of Texas] would be happy to have them!!"
"Attending A&M with the purpose in mind of changing things for the sake of diversity is not what our University is about. 'We' don't want to be like everyone else. Some call us a cult, maybe we are."
But change is not something that can be avoided - even at a school as steeped in tradition as A&M, says Mr. Chapman.
He points to large changes, such as in 1963, when the name was changed from the Agricultural and Mechanical College of Texas. Not to mention 1972, when women were finally admitted on an unconditional basis. And there have been smaller changes as well, such as the class rings and the tempo of the band music.
"Some traditions have died, some have carried on, and some have mutated over time," he says. "There is a feeling among the students that there is a long continuity of tradition. But they have only a four-year memory. Things here are constantly changing, and nobody really knows it."