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Texas Showdown

June 15, 2009

An unusually public battle between the president of Texas A&M University's flagship campus and her boss, Chancellor Mike McKinney, ended Sunday as the president announced her resignation, effective today. Elsa Murano's job had been in limbo since McKinney, the system head, gave her a particularly stinging evaluation.

The resignation came the day before the Board of Regents was scheduled to meet in executive session – over lunch – where regents were to have discussed “personnel matters” widely believed to be tied to Murano’s employment.

Underlying the bureaucratic wording of the board’s agenda is a controversy that has gotten downright nasty. Faculty say the now public feud is driven in large part by Murano’s unwillingness to allow McKinney to micromanage the university. Those faculty concerns were heightened upon the public release of McKinney’s evaluation of Murano, in which the chancellor criticized the president for working on behalf of faculty instead of on behalf of the regents.

“Should work WITH faculty not FOR faculty,” McKinney scribbled in the margins of the evaluation.

In a written response to the evaluation, Murano called McKinney’s claims “ludicrous.”

“Incredibly, Dr. McKinney also rated me a 1 [the lowest rating on a 5-point scale] in terms of being a team player,” she wrote. “Does this simply refer to the fact that I question ideas and plans that cross my desk that are troubling and which I consider as potentially damaging to the university?”

VP Hire May Be Root of Conflict

As talk of Murano’s imminent ouster spread across campus last week, faculty attached increasing significance to McKinney’s handwritten notes. Of particular interest is McKinney’s criticism of Murano’s failure to execute board directives.

“Refused to carry out her commitment to BOR or chancellor (VPR; Research foundation),” McKinney wrote.

To an outsider, the acronyms might not mean much. For faculty at A&M, however, there’s little mystery about McKinney’s beef. “VPR” is thought to refer to the recent hiring of a vice president for research. Unlike a previous vice presidential search for student affairs, which ended with the appointment of a former college roommate of Texas Gov. Rick Perry, the vice president for research was chosen after a national search.

Bob Bednarz, speaker of the Faculty Senate, said the president made it clear early on that she’d handle the vice president for research appointment in a more transparent manner than she had the student affairs job.

“I know that the president at one point said she was committed to having a nationwide search to find a vice president for research, and I think she made that statement publicly,” said Bednarz, a professor of geography. “And certainly people heard that and thought she was encouraged not to do [a national search], which is why she said she was determined to do it.”

The influence Perry and McKinney have had over Murano’s short presidency has become a source of concern and frustration for faculty and at least one noted alumnus. John Hagler, who has given $5 million to Texas A&M -- among other considerable gifts -- told The Eagle newspaper that the politicization of the campus is giving him second thoughts about continuing to support A&M financially.

"I cannot speak for other former students, but I can say this: it is inconceivable to me that I could continue to financially support a university whose governance has been so politicized and convoluted that its presidency is selected and dismissed with such callous disregard for due process or thoughtful community involvement,” he said.

Some faculty trace the schism between Murano and her politically-appointed boss – McKinney was Perry’s chief of staff – to the search for a vice president for student affairs. With some coaxing from both men, Murano appointed retired Lt. Gen. Joseph Weber, a longtime friend of Perry’s, to the post. Student criticism of the move was so intense that Murano rescinded the offer, only to later hire Weber.

The vice president for research search played out differently -- some say to Murano’s ultimate peril. A committee of campus stakeholders engaged in a national search, and declined to recommend the hiring of Brett Giroir, a Perry ally and former official of the Pentagon's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. But when Murano opted instead to hire Jeffrey Seemann, a University of Rhode Island dean, McKinney simply carved out a new position for Giroir, naming him vice chancellor of research for the system.

Neither McKinney nor his press office returned calls for comment Friday.

Murano similarly declined an interview request, but issued a statement citing her commitment to the university’s strategic plan, known as Vision 2020.

“The documents that I provided to the Chancellor both prior to and following his evaluation are self-explanatory and speak to the tremendous progress we have made in terms of re-energizing Vision 2020 and continuing Texas A&M’s legacy of service to the state and country,” the statement said. “It is the university’s long-standing practice not to discuss personnel matters, and staying consistent with this practice, I will decline to comment further.”

Chancellor’s Move Viewed as Power Grab

A number of the chancellor’s recent actions, including Giroir’s appointment in the system office, have prompted criticism that McKinney is consolidating power, taking particular ownership of the research enterprise. McKinney’s own public statements haven’t discouraged such speculation, given a recent comment that he might like to simply merge his job with that of the A&M presidency. The idea hasn’t been a hit with A&M faculty, and others in Texas are similarly skeptical. In an online poll with 875 faculty participants across three campuses, 85 percent expressed opposition to merging the positions, and just 8 percent said they supported the idea.

Charles Miller, former chairman of the University of Texas Board of Regents, says the chancellor has plenty of work to do on the political front without taking on additional responsibilities as A&M president.

“In the case of UT and Texas A&M they definitely should be [separate],” Miller said. “I don’t think many people would argue with that inside or out of the schools.”

Supporters Rally Around Murano

As the sword of Damocles hung over Murano Friday, the A&M Faculty Senate’s Executive Committee and Council of Principal Investigators put forward an open letter, expressing “a deep concern for the reputation and the future of this institution.”

“What message do we send our students if they perceive that questioning authority results in humiliation or dismissal? Imagine the consequences if our faculty treated students who challenged their ideas in a hostile fashion or failed to provide students with guidance to improve their performance,” the letter states.

“Recent events have diminished the Office of the President of Texas A&M University and are likely to destabilize the University and erode its ability to hire the most qualified administrators and faculty,” the letter goes on to say. “What talented administrator or faculty member would move to an institution where decisions are made unilaterally, disagreement is viewed as disloyalty, and transparency is not valued?”

It is ironic, perhaps, that faculty have so readily defended Murano, a former A&M dean of agriculture whose initial hiring was criticized by some of the very same people who are now rallying around her. Murano, who in late 2007 became the first woman and first Hispanic to lead A&M, was not hired on the recommendations of a search committee, and was instead handpicked by the very board that is thought to be seeking her ouster today.

Despite the rocky beginnings, however, Murano has proven to be an able and collaborative leader, according to Doug Slack, who chaired the presidential search committee. She has been committed to the strategic plan, and successfully encouraged some 400 faculty members to compete for research dollars for interdisciplinary projects, he said.

“That’s the first time so many faculty members have been involved in a strategic process that I’ve seen in my years at A&M. Period,” said Slack, a professor of wildlife and fisheries sciences who joined the faculty in 1973.

Hispanic groups like the Texas A&M Hispanic Network have similarly voiced support for Murano.

Henry Ortega, chairman of the 300-member alumni organization, told The Eagle the board had some “growing up” to do when it comes to diversity issues.

"There is a need for this university to come to grips with a little bit of growing up and become more open to the issues of diversity," he told the newspaper. "We only have praise for the way that Dr. Murano has handled her assignments at the university. She has been a symbol -- a breath of fresh air at A&M as far as I and the organization I represent are concerned. Our focus is the issue of diversity, and she's been very positive in promoting that."

The last several weeks of turmoil on campus have a familiar feel for students and faculty, who have cringed as power struggles continue to unfold at A&M. Bednarz says he’s just as concerned about controversies that may yet emerge as he is about the present one.

“Eighteen months ago the regents appointed Elsa Murano, and she was not one of the finalists identified by the search committee. And now here within a year she was given a really bad evaluation and now it appears that she might be replaced, and there’s no guarantee the process will be any different than it was last time,” Bednarz said. “It would seem to me that there is a danger of repeating the process again and again. Faculty are concerned about the impact this has on being able to attract good people and the reputation of the university.”

 

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