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The Fix That Wasn't In

October 22, 2009

When administrators send Mike McKinney an e-mail, they often begin with “Howdy.” It may seem an informal introduction, but the Texas A&M University chancellor invites that sort of thing. Such is the way in Texas, where major deals can be brokered over football games – and handshakes are expected to be honored like contracts, McKinney says.

“This is Texas,” says McKinney, who runs the 11-campus system. “This is not some other places. Don’t give your word until you’re ready to keep it, and once you give your word you have to keep your word.”

It was this cowboy code that McKinney says Elsa Murano ran afoul of during her tenure as president of A&M’s flagship campus, which ended with her pressured resignation in July after just 1½ years. Early in her presidency, McKinney says, Murano made a controversial promise, agreeing to hire the Board of Regents’ favored candidate to head research operations on the campus. Such a promise would fly in the face of well-established norms in higher education – where hires of this nature are typically subject to national searches and faculty input – but McKinney openly admits that he and the regents expected Murano to deliver on “her word.”

McKinney's account reveals that he encouraged Murano to fill the position without faculty input or a search, that he viewed the search she ran as a sham designed to appease the faculty, and that he objected to the sham search in part because she turned it into a real search -- without a pre-ordained outcome.

The chancellor's version of Murano’s presidency, shared with Inside Higher Ed in his most extensive interview to date on the subject, is not likely to quell critics who argue the chancellor has exerted undue influence over A&M’s flagship – particularly in the area of research. The story does, however, illustrate the system's challenge to a growing narrative that Murano – who opposed some of the research projects faculty still find most controversial – was a stalwart defender of campus-level autonomy, fending off a micromanaging system chief. Far from it, McKinney argues, Murano was a university president who tried to have it both ways, providing the appearance of faculty inclusion while surreptitiously agreeing to fill the position of vice president of research with Brett Giroir, a Pentagon official who made a favorable impression on her, McKinney and the regents during a 2007 Aggie football game.

Murano, who was the first woman and first Hispanic ever to head the flagship, did not respond to numerous interview requests. Her well-publicized response to McKinney’s stinging evaluation of her performance, however, suggests she and the chancellor often viewed the same events very differently. Faculty, who have voted no confidence in the chancellor, are also likely to take exception to his account.

The search for a research chief did not ultimately end with the hiring of Giroir. After a lengthy process, Murano opted instead to recommend the appointment of Jeffrey Seemann, a University of Rhode Island dean who was confirmed by the Board of Regents and still holds the position. But Giroir, the former Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) official, remains a key player in A&M’s research enterprise. McKinney’s appointment of Giroir as vice chancellor for research – more on that later – has placed Giroir at the center of systemwide initiatives, including the creation of a $50 million therapeutics institute widely criticized as a pork-barrel project benefiting Gov. Rick Perry’s campaign contributors.

The establishment of the institute, known as the National Center for Therapeutics Manufacturing or NCTM, was also cited in a no confidence vote issued against McKinney in June by the Council of Principal Investigators, a group of A&M research faculty.

Chancellor: Search Started as Sham

It has been no secret that McKinney and the regents had pushed for Giroir to head research at the flagship, and the chancellor’s evaluation of Murano noted that she “refused to carry out her commitment” to appoint him. But early in her tenure, Murano gave the search all appearances of legitimacy, establishing a committee to look for a vice president and thereby dampening criticism that the fix was in. In the beginning, the search was all a show, McKinney now says. It wasn't until later that Murano got cold feet -- or got religion -- and decided to conduct an authentic search, he says.

“She told me ‘I feel like I need to appoint a search committee for the VPR’s office, but I’m still going to get Brett,’ ” McKinney says. “I went ‘Elsa, this is me and I stand up and swear on the Bible, that’s not a search, that’s manipulation.’ I think the only thing worse than not being inclusive is to act like you are and you’re not. That’s manipulation.”

And yet, McKinney never expressed concerns publicly. Indeed, he candidly admits that he went about advising Murano on how to manage a search with a predetermined outcome.

“Don’t appoint a big committee,” he told her.

Murano appointed a committee of standard size, but the ruse still continued, McKinney says.

“She went up to Washington and talked to [Giroir] about it, reassured him [he would get the job] so he would hold on,” McKinney says. “Then I got a word that the committee was now even going to hire a search firm. I said ‘Elsa, you’ve got to think about this. If you’re telling me you’re going to hire a search firm and you know who is going to win, give me the money.’ ”

Even after the Isaacson Miller search firm was hired, McKinney says he and Bill Jones, a member of the regents, paid a personal visit to Giroir to tell him not to worry – Murano had guaranteed he’d be the vice president for research.

“He and I met with Brett, and Bill Jones reassured him again that that’s what Dr. Murano told him was going to happen,” McKinney says. “He was really about to give up.”

Isaacson Miller officials could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

It was in the midst of this dance with Giroir that Murano was engaged in another search that would prove controversial. The appointment of Lt. Gen. Joseph Weber as vice president for student affairs drew charges of cronyism from students, who complained they were left out of a process that ended in the hiring of Governor Perry’s former college roommate. Criticism was so intense that Murano rescinded the offer, promising more input from students, only to ultimately hire Weber. Weber had no direct experience in student affairs, although he worked with college students at the United States Naval Academy, where he taught leadership and speech.

Giroir: "Stop Wasting My Time"

If the fix was in to hire Giroir from the start, Murano did not act quickly enough to appease McKinney. Concerned Giroir would sour on A&M altogether given the delays, McKinney moved to create a new position for Giroir in his own office. The search committee, which was still in talks with Giroir, was not made aware of McKinney’s plan.

Records show the system created the position – complete with necessary qualifications that mirrored those of Giroir – on April 8, 2008. By April 16, 2008 – prior to the regents’ approval of the position and without the search committee’s knowledge of his pending hire – Giroir said he was already shopping for “Aggie attire” and had been “up since 2 a.m. planning and scheming new projects,” an e-mail shows. Giroir acknowledged that he still needed board approval, but didn’t sound too worried about that.

“We sold our house this weekend based on our high confidence this was going to happen,” Giroir wrote to McKinney and Guy Diedrich, the system’s vice chancellor of research and federal relations.

The regents approved Giroir’s hire April 23, and within 11 days – weeks before he was slated to start work – Giroir was already asking how to get “on the list for football and basketball tickets,” e-mail records show.

Joanne Lupton, who headed the search committee, says committee members only learned of the position’s creation when a local newspaper reported on the regents’ vote.

“It’s not the kind of surprise you want in the middle of a search,” says Lupton, a professor of nutrition and food science. “Yes, it was a concern of ours. We just didn’t know what it meant. What did it mean? Did it mean there was only going to be a vice chancellor for research?”

But the search for a vice president for research continued, and Giroir remained an active candidate for a period. Indeed, when Murano recommended an initial finalist to McKinney, the chancellor was still backing his man.

“You shouldn’t be bringing me anything that says anything other than Brett Giroir at the top,” he recalls telling her.

The finalist Murano recommended did not accept the position, however, prompting a second search in which Giroir did not participate as a candidate. Once in place as vice chancellor, Giroir wanted a say in who would fill the position he once had sought, e-mail records indicate. But when Giroir reached out to former colleagues to get their take on candidates, he was told to stop – an illustration of tensions that would only grow between the chancellor and president’s office during Murano’s last three months in office.

“Both Mike [McKinney] and Elsa [Murano] agree that only the Search Committee and the Search Firm should be making any contacts regarding these candidates,” wrote Russell Cross, Murano’s chief of staff and executive vice president for operations.

Giroir had been involved in meeting with candidates, but apparently saw that as an insufficient sphere of influence – and implied the regents would as well.

“If I am not involved in the process, cannot call independent references, cannot personally interview the candidate, etc. then I will stop wasting my time going to cookie talks and breakfasts and you should not pretend that I share responsibility for the choice,” Giroir wrote to Cross March 16. “This just needs to be clarified because I am certain there will be high interest at the BOR level. Thanks Russell.”

Rod Davis, a spokesman for the system office, says Giroir – who was traveling in China this week – was not aware of any rule barring contact with references before he reached out to a former colleague. Once Giroir received an e-mail telling him not to make any such contacts, he stopped, Davis says.

President’s Autonomy in Doubt

While the search ended with the selection of Seemann, a committee-endorsed candidate, the process still reveals systemic problems, according to some faculty. The notion that system-level players were pushing their own candidates – as they had with Giroir – and checking references outside the committee’s guidelines – as Giroir did on at least one occasion – does not sit well with faculty already concerned about system micromanagement.

“The faculty feel that the flagship should be autonomous, and that its search should be allowed to be run without the influence of the system,” says Mary Meagher, a professor of psychology at A&M.

As the campus looks for a new permanent president, there is also concern that finding strong candidates will be difficult if there’s a perception that A&M leaders can’t control campus-level decisions, according to Doug Slack, a professor of wildlife and fisheries sciences.

“I believe that the candidates that they interview that are seriously considered for the position will undoubtedly expect a certain level of autonomy in the hiring and firing of major appointees,” Slack Says. “One of the concerns that’s come out of travails at Texas A&M is how much autonomy the president of A&M has.”

View From the Box Seats

So how did Giroir get on A&M’s radar in the first place? McKinney says the wheels were in motion to hire him before Murano was even named president. About two years ago, the chancellor says he attended a conference in Austin where Giroir was a presenter, and the two ended up chatting on a car ride together. McKinney found him “extremely impressive” as the two commiserated in the backseat – and it didn’t hurt that two other regents, Bill Jones and John White, were already fans of Giroir as well. So McKinney, a self-described spotter of talent, did what Aggies do: he invited Giroir to sit in his box seats at a football game.

“That was the day he fell in love with Texas A&M,” McKinney says of that 2007 football game.

Murano, who had yet to be named president, was in those box seats as well, McKinney says. She not only had a sightline to the game, but also a clear view of the enthusiasm her future bosses had for Giroir.

“I don’t even know that she knew him until all the rest of us started singing his praises,” McKinney says.

Photo: Office of the Governor Rick Perry

Gov. Rick Perry, a Texas A&M alumnus, has ties to a number of system-level officials.

Much has been made of whether Giroir was Governor Perry’s hand-picked research chief, but McKinney – Perry’s former chief of staff – says that’s not so. In response to a public records request, Perry’s office also said it had no written communications between Giroir and Perry or Perry and McKinney regarding the appointment. The governor’s office similarly furnished no records connected to the hire from Jay Kimbrough, Perry’s chief of staff and the A&M system’s former deputy chancellor and general counsel.

For those who seek a connection to Perry, however, it’s never hard to find one at A&M, the governor’s alma mater. Giroir was a known quantity to Guy Diedrich, the governor’s running buddy and the system’s vice chancellor of research and federal relations. His two early advocates on the board of regents, Jones and White, were both appointed by Perry and have other connections to the governor as well. Jones is Perry’s former general council, and White is a fundraiser for his 2010 re-election campaign.

Skeptics – McKinney calls them “conspiracy theorists” – similarly find too cozy connections between Perry allies and the private partners in A&M research initiatives. Concerns have been expressed, for instance, about businesses involved in A&M’s National Center for Therapeutics Manufacturing, which entered into memorandums of understanding with two financially struggling companies that have ties to Perry and Giroir.

The system’s memorandum of understanding with a company called Introgen has become a political hot potato in Texas. That’s in part because of reports that the financially struggling company’s founder and former director were Perry contributors. Similar concerns have been raised about NCTM’s partnership with Xoma, a drug company whose economic stability was questioned by auditors in March. A drug called Raptiva, which Xoma helped develop and collected royalties from, was pulled from shelves in April. To help pay off a $44.2 million loan to Goldman Sachs, Xoma arranged a buyout from Genetech, forfeiting future royalties on a drug called Lucentis, which used technology Xoma developed and Genetech licensed from Xoma. [This information has been corrected from a previous version].

Giroir holds five patents with Xoma, and he also listed the company’s executive vice president, Patrick Scannon, as one of five references when he applied to work with A&M. The chancellor’s general counsel has found “no conflict of interest on this matter,” according to Davis, the system spokesman. And even though Giroir “has received zero money from these patents,” he has agreed to assign all potential royalties to the Texas A&M system, Davis added.

In an e-mail describing the decision to give up any future royalties, Giroir wrote “This was not required, or even suggested, but we did this to eliminate any conceivable basis for the unfair criticism and implied, bordering on libelous, accusations.”

Under the criticism, however, Giroir has tried to ease faculty concerns. He did so in a marathon meeting this summer, where faculty grilled him about perceived interference from the system. Giroir told the group he wanted to work harder to build an inclusive research strategy.

Extreme Makeover

Critics who view NCTM as a pork barrel project have noted that the $50 million Perry steered toward A&M was given without approval from an advisory panel that typically weighs in on such decisions. McKinney chalks up criticism to jealousy, adding “why anybody, anybody with pure motives, would be opposed to NCTM I have no idea.”

Those who have questioned it include the Council of Principal Investigators, whose members posted a report online that questioned the viability of the NCTM project. According to a faculty member with knowledge of the report, attorneys from the chancellor's office contacted members and threatened legal action, saying it was a felonious offense to post such "proprietary" information publicly. The report, which was not provided to Inside Higher Ed, was produced by an executive from GlaxoSmithKline, one of the world’s largest pharmaceutical companies. [This information has been updated from a previous version].

GlaxoSmithKline officials did not respond to inquires about the report, but Davis dismissed it as the work of a competitor that “has much to lose from technologies such as those being pioneered at the NCTM." He added that no legal action was ever threatened, saying the system's lawyers asked the council to "please remove" the posting.

“There was no official report from Glaxo,” Davis wrote in an e-mail. “It was only commentary that was based on unethically provided information, some proprietary, that jeopardizes the interests of Texas taxpayers.”

Another critic of NCTM was Murano, who raised particular questions about the system’s memorandum of understanding with Introgen – a deal she says was brokered behind her back.

“University administration learned of the agreement in the press, its officials having been excluded from discussions regarding whether this partnership would be beneficial to its faculty, who conduct most of the research within the System,” Murano wrote in her self-evaluation. “The parent company to Introgen Therapeutics, Introgen, was removed from NASDAQ after very poor financial performance.”

There is no shortage of irony in the fact that Murano, through something of an extreme makeover, has come to be viewed as a stalwart defender of campus-level autonomy. In 2007, the presidential search committee did not recommend her for appointment, and she was instead handpicked by McKinney and the regents. The committee had recommended three sitting presidents, not Murano, who was A&M's vice chancellor and dean of agriculture. In some ways Murano -- who had the support of McKinney, the regents and Perry -- was selected through a process that wasn't in keeping with the transparency that many faculty members desired.

Despite difficult beginnings, there is little question that Murano’s final months – and her publicized exchanges with McKinney – have formed the portrait of a university leader who transformed from an insider’s insider into a faculty defender. McKinney’s own notes on her evaluation – “Should work WITH faculty not FOR faculty” – have helped complete that picture.

The university is now under the interim leadership of R. Bowen Loftin, former vice president and chief executive officer of A&M’s Galveston campus, and a search is underway for a permanent president. McKinney says there should be no fear of him micromanaging Murano’s successor, but a new president should also have no illusions that he won’t weigh in on issues that matter to him.

“The Board of Regents has a keen interest in what goes on at the flagship university, and they are not un-opinionated,” he says. “And frankly, I’m not un-opinionated.”

 

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