Politics as Usual?

In the search for a new chancellor at the University of Texas System, some critics say the process has become overly politicized.

December 17, 2008

To say there’s politics at play in Texas is akin to noticing there’s gambling in Casablanca. But from the point of view of some education leaders in the state, political considerations appear to be playing too large a role in the selection of a new chancellor of the University of Texas System.

The state Board of Regents, all of whose members were appointed by Gov. Rick Perry, a Republican, are slated to interview candidates for the chancellor’s post Thursday. Two candidates’ names have been floated publicly, including that of John Montford, the former chancellor of the Texas Tech University System, who served in the state Senate from 1983 to 1986. The other known candidate is Francisco Cigarroa, president of the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio.

Montford has obvious political connections, and Perry told a group of lawmakers recently that he thought Montford would make a good chancellor. Perry’s comment, made during an informal meeting over hamburgers in Austin, has fueled speculation that the governor is pushing regents to tap his favored candidate. The governor’s office played down that possibility Tuesday.

“That is a board process and a board decision, and the governor expects they’ll make a decision in the best interest of the university system, and the best interest of Texans,” said Allison Castle, a spokeswoman for the governor.

Asked if the governor had directly conveyed his preference to regents, Castle said that “to my knowledge" he had not.

Scott Caven, chairman of the Texas Board of Regents, declined an interview request Tuesday.

Tom Johnson, executive director of the Texas Faculty Association, said the entire process of selecting a new chancellor has been sorely lacking in transparency since Mark G. Yudof, the former chancellor, was named president of the University of California system.

“This is very much, in my opinion, the governor’s decision,” Johnson said. “There’s no public debate about any of this.”

Montford and Cigarroa's names emerged as potential candidates when Caven revealed to reporters that they would be interviewed, but system officials say the men are not "finalists." In recent history, the regents have named a single "finalist" who was ultimately named chancellor. Texas law requires regents to publicly name finalists 21 days before sealing a final deal, and by limiting the finalist to one person the regents can keep candidates' names out of public discussions until a deal is essentially done.

“Certainly the faculty have no say, the students have no say, the taxpayers have no say,” Johnson said. “Who has a say? You don’t know because it’s secret.”

Montford and Cigarroa have quite different backgrounds. Cigarroa, a surgeon, earned his bachelor's degree from Yale University and a medical degree from the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas. He is the first Hispanic to lead a health science university, according to the medical center's Web site.

Montford, now an executive at AT&T Inc., earned his bachelor's and law degrees from Texas-Austin, and previously served as a district attorney in Texas.

Neither Montford nor Cigarroa could be reached for comment.

Montford Crosses Party Lines

This wouldn’t be the first time Perry’s preference for a chancellor candidate was perceived to have a role in the process. Michael McKinney, named chancellor of the Texas A&M University System in 2006, once served as the governor's chief of staff.

If Montford is indeed Perry’s choice, however, it’s not out of pure party loyalty, as Montford is a Democrat. He is, however, often described as having been a senator from the conservative wing of the party, and he was a contributor to Perry’s 2006 campaign along with a host of political action committees, according to the Texas Ethics Commission. In federal races this year, Montford contributed about $11,000 to Republican candidates and PACs, but gave double that -- more than $24,000 -- to Democrats, according to opensecrets.org.

Political acumen has been touted by some university trustees across the nation as an essential asset in the modern world of higher education leadership, especially for public institutions. Several boards have appointed university presidents in recent years, for instance, largely because of their political backgrounds. Those presidencies have had varied success, and some express concern that the emphasis on political savvy has overshadowed the importance of a strong background in academe.

Charles Miller, former chairman of the University of Texas Board of Regents, said he hoped the regents would not put a premium on political skill. Miller, who helped put Cigarroa’s name in circulation as a candidate, is a longtime leader in Texas higher education circles, and he was appointed by Education Secretary Margaret Spellings to head her Commission on the Future of Higher Education.

“I think there’s no doubt [Cigarroa is] an outstanding academic leader,” Miller said. “And I don’t agree with other leadership in the state that what we need is somebody who is familiar with politics in the capital, because [the university] is an international institution of great prestige, and somebody like Dr. Cigarroa can be an international figure in higher education and attract and recruit resources. I disagree with state leaders in Texas who believe the opposite.

“I think the political people need an academic leader and expert, not somebody who knows what they know,” he added. "Somebody’s got to run the place, and make long-term strategic decisions. You seem to want somebody that knows more than how to get legislation passed.”


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