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Reign of the Politician-Chancellor

August 23, 2011

The academic chancellor seems like a rarity in Texas right now.

With the announcement that John Sharp, a former state comptroller and legislator, is poised to assume the chancellorship of the Texas A&M University System, Francisco G. Cigarroa, chancellor of the University of Texas System, will be one of only two public university system heads in the state without a background in politics. The other, Renu Khator, is president of the University of Houston and chancellor of the UH System.

As a former politician turned public system head, Sharp will join Lee Jackson, chancellor of the University of North Texas System, who served in the state House of Representatives and was the chief elected official in Dallas County; Kent R. Hance, chancellor of Texas Tech University System, who served in the state Senate, the U.S. House of Representatives, and the Railroad Commission of Texas; and Brian McCall a former member of the state House of Representatives, now leading the the Texas State University System.

Former politicians and others from outside the academy overseeing university systems is not a new trend, and many systems have fared very well with politicos at their helm. What makes Texas' situation unusual is the fact that Cigarroa, a former academic, is an exception rather than the rule. (Note: This article has been updated from an earlier version to correct an error.)

Many see the appointments as a further politicization of higher education systems that have had a tumultuous relationship with the state's political elite. While governors of many states have worked to shape governing boards, few have been as involved in the process as Texas Gov. Rick Perry, the longest-serving governor in state history and now a candidate for the Republican nomination for president. Individuals involved in the state's higher-education systems say the board and chancellor appointments -- mostly Republicans who share close ties and similar political philosophies with Perry -- show the depth to which state politicians, particularly the governor, have shaped and will continue to shape higher education in Texas.

Academics who have studied the state’s political history say Perry's efforts to place former politicians in charge of the various university systems, as part of a larger effort to enact a series of contentious reforms, is the latest extension of a decades-long pursuit by Texas politicians to exert more control over the state’s universities and reap the political payoffs associated with them.

“Texas political culture is ambivalent at best about education, higher education in particular,” says Calvin Jillson, a professor of political science at Southern Methodist University, in Dallas, who studies the state's political culture. “Politicians have long tried to seek to control the extent to which education, and particularly higher education, impinges uncomfortably on that culture.”

A History of Influence

Texas university systems have always been closely tied to state politics. The state's elite have tended to view appointments on university boards of regents as markers of prestige, and as a result, individuals appointed to the boards have tended to be closely tied to the state's major politicians.

In Texas, regents are appointed by the governor to six-year terms on a staggered basis, subject to approval of the state Senate. Because Perry has held the office continuously for 11 years, he has been able to appoint every regent on all the systems' boards. Many of the individuals appointed made large contributions to Perry.

Because regents have historically had close ties to politicians, the systems' boards have long been seen as a way for politicians to exert influence on the systems. Texas state history is filled with conflicts between university leaders and the state's politicians over cultural issues, typically at the board level.

James E. Ferguson, governor of Texas from 1915 to 1917, was impeached and removed from office after vetoing appropriations to the University of Texas because the university would not dismiss certain professors. Faculty members at the university were some of the major organizers of the impeachment effort. A few years later, Ferguson's wife defeated a University of Texas dean for the governorship.

Homer P. Rainey, president of the University of Texas at Austin from 1939 to 1944, was fired from that position after a long battle with the regents over issues of academic freedom. The state's politicians, acting through the regents, sought to purge the university of communists. Rainey then sought the Democratic nomination for governor against the man who many say forced him out.

"Those types of conflicts still exist today," Jillson says. "They just talk about them differently." The appointment of political allies to system administration positions, he added, is the logical outgrowth of board reforms getting blocked by academic administrators. Most recently, William Powers, president of the University of Texas at Austin, spoke out against efforts pushed by the system's board to measure faculty members' productivity.

'Tricky Positions'

Given that history, some faculty members worry that the recent crop of chancellors represent an effort by politicians to further influence academics, rather than appointments that reflect sound leadership decisions.

The merits of placing someone with political experience at the helm of a university system have been debated for years. On one hand, the system head often has to navigate the state legislature to secure funding. A system head might also be the primary spokesperson for the universities when crises arise. A political background could help prepare a candidate for such responsibilities.

On the other hand, university faculty members and students tend to be wary of political interference and the potential for such appointments to impinge on academic freedom. Professors often argue that those without higher education experience might not understand how institutions operate, or concepts such as tenure.

"If their jobs are to administer the system, and to try to increase state funding, then a former politician might not be my ideal choice, but I could live with it," says Michael Benedik, a biology professor at Texas A&M University and speaker of the Faculty Senate. "But if their job is to administer academics and make decisions about what the university should be doing and setting strategic plans, then I wouldn't be supportive."

Dan Burck, chancellor of the University of Texas System from 2000-2003, says a chancellor in Texas must have skill in dealing with the legislature as well as in administrative areas. He partly attributes the recent shift toward individuals with a legislative background to cuts in state support.

"In this environment, you're battling for every dollar," Burck says. "I think we've migrated to this model because boards feel that someone with that background, a political background, might be able to deal better with the legislature, and therefore generate more income for the system."

But Burck says that just because someone has a legislative background does not mean he or she will be successful in securing funds; someone with an academic background may also do well. He points to Cigarroa, whose background is in medicine and health center administration, as a chancellor who has been successful in the political arena.

Texas chancellors sit in a difficult position between politicians, who wish to bring changes to the systems, and faculty members, who have traditionally resisted such reforms. In recent years, the chancellors have been the focus of much attention and ground zero for several conflicts. "You don't see very top officials in Texas' major universities lasting long," Jillson says. "Over the past few years it has been a revolving door."

Perry's Reforms

Perry's influence in placing people on boards, and therefore his influence in the selection of chancellors, has attracted attention in Texas because of a series of reforms he has partially endorsed called the "seven breakthrough solutions."

The "solutions" originate with a group known as the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank with ties to the governor, and an Austin businessman named Jeff Sandefer, who sits on the foundation's board and is a major donor to Perry. The reforms include separating research and teaching budgets, placing more emphasis on student evaluations, and creating a separate accrediting body.

Faculty members and campus leaders have criticized the reforms, saying they are overly simplistic and will do more harm than good.

A spokesman for the foundation declined to comment on what type of background foundation members preferred for system chancellors and whether they have had an easier time getting the former politicians to hear them out. He says the foundation's influence has been exaggerated.

Burck, who is one of the founding members of a group known as the Texas Coalition for Excellence in Higher Education that is opposing the foundation's reform efforts, says the imposition of reforms and the selection of board members and chancellors are "closely tied."

"The people that are appointed know exactly what initiatives he wants to take, and in some cases they follow it," Burck says of Perry. Not all have, though. Some board members, despite being appointed by Perry, have not been as open to the governor's reforms as some faculty members expected, and several regents have voiced opposition.

Administrators who have pushed back against the reforms have not lasted long. Elsa Murano, the former president of A&M's flagship campus, stepped down from the position after a very public dispute with Chancellor Mike McKinney. Faculty members said the dispute between the two came about because McKinney, Perry's former chief of staff, was trying to consolidate authority in the chancellorship, and Murano was pushing back against reforms. The dispute galvanized many faculty members and alumni donors against the governor and McKinney, who stepped down in June.

A Surprise Pick for A&M

Academics said they were surprised by Sharp's appointment as chancellor of the A&M system. While he is a former state politician, and a friend of Perry's, Sharp is a Democrat, while the rest of the recently appointed chancellors with political pasts are Republicans. Sharp even ran against Perry in a contentious election for lieutenant governor in 1998.

In naming Sharp, an A&M alumnus and former student body president, to the position, the board cited his background in the legislature and his leadership experience. "John Sharp is a known leader, very respected in this state," Richard Box, chairman of the A&M board, said when the announcement was made. "He can get things done over here for us. He can help us get the bills passed and hopefully help us with future budgets that we have."

Within minutes of being appointed, Sharp played down the significance of the "breakthrough solutions" pushed by Perry and the Texas Public Policy Foundation. He said he would not pursue reforms without close consultation with faculty and staff members at the universities, earning him some tentative praise from faculty at those institutions.

"Faculty were terrified that we would end up with a really bad choice," says Peter Hugill, a geography professor at A&M's flagship campus and president of the Texas chapter of the American Association of University Professors, who added that many faculty expected a "yes man" who would move forward on the reforms without question. "The comments he made after his announcement, at the news conference, hit all the right notes, particularly the need to listen to faculty and not decide anything until we have a lot of input."

A Fight for Cigarroa

With politicians at the helm of most of the state's other systems and increased pressure to make reforms in the UT system, it's easy to wonder what Cigarroa's fate will be. Cigarroa, who was selected in 2008, was picked over John Montford, a former state senator and chancellor of the Texas Tech system. There was speculation that Perry preferred Montford after the governor said publicly before the selection that he thought Montford would make a good chancellor.

When selecting Cigarroa, the board cited his academic and fund-raising experience and proven track record as an administrator of the UT Health Science Center at San Antonio.

For the moment, Cigarroa’s position seems fairly secure. After giving a speech in favor of the research mission of the university, Cigarroa received a unanimous vote of support from the system's Board of Regents. "Now is the time to get fully behind the chancellor and not micromanage his affairs,” said Regent Steve Hicks during the meeting. Faculty members and alumni have also been rallying to Cigarroa's defense.

But Burck sees the potential for more disagreements on the horizon that will require strong leadership from the chancellor. "We're in a turbulent period for Texas higher education right now," he says. "We might get a few black eyes and take some blows, but in the end I think we'll get through it."

 

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