Out Man In

What kind of person should run a university system? Texas Tech regents gambled on a politician instead of an academic—and won. Take that, UT.

June 2000By Comments

During the third quarter of the 1994 football game between the Texas Tech Red Raiders and the University of New Mexico Lobos, one of Tech’s mascots, a black stallion named Double T, celebrated his team’s touchdown in the usual way—by charging down the sideline with his rider. This time, however, Double T’s rider fell off, and the horse lost his footing, crashed into a wall, and died instantly of head injuries. Tech fans were devastated, and none more than the university’s administrators, who forbade Double T’s successor from continuing the cherished tradition while they studied the situation. Two long years went by, and then John Montford came aboard as Tech’s chancellor. Setting the tone of his tenure to date, Montford immediately reinstated the touchdown run. “Little things like that go a long way in stirring pride and enthusiasm,” he told me recently. Then, his mirth barely in check, he added, “They actually had a committee studying it. I said, ‘Your committee is dissolved.’”

With that edict, Montford sent a signal to Tech loyalists everywhere: The days of business as usual are over. He also confounded the conventional wisdom about what kind of person should be running a university system. When Tech’s regents resolved to hire their first-ever chancellor, they were expected to draw from the small pool of qualified academics around the country, as is the standard operating procedure in higher education (the University of Texas System is now hiring its own new chancellor, and all fifteen finalists are from the ranks of academia). Little did anyone know how unorthodox Tech’s choice would be, or how successful it would prove. In Montford—an ex-Marine, a former district attorney, and at the time of his hiring, the chairman of the Texas Senate’s finance committee—Tech got the sort of decisive manager who is rarely seen on any campus. And, indeed, since arriving in August 1996, the 57-year-old has turned a once-sleepy institution into a galloping success story.

Known as a quick study during his five terms in the Senate, Montford began his time at Tech by setting out four ambitious goals to work toward over five years. It took him less than four years to achieve three and make progress on the fourth. Raise $300 million? Check. Commit to a master plan for campus building projects? Check. Devise a way for Tech to aid in West Texas economic development? Check. Become a Carnegie Tier I Research University, the rating given to universities and colleges that earn $40 million annually in federal grants? Tech fell short last year, but it may win the designation under a revised system of evaluating schools.

There are other signs of new life at the prairie-bound university, which sits on 1,850 acres in northwest Lubbock: A gorgeous new basketball arena hosts games, graduations, and other important events. The average SAT scores of entering freshmen are up by seventeen points over last year, and the number of new freshmen jumped by two hundred. The Honors College now boasts nine hundred students—up 30 percent over last year, thanks to new scholarship funds that are being used to attract National Merit finalists and scholars. And despite an embarrassing fourth-tier rating for several years in U.S. News and World Report’s ranking of the nation’s best colleges, Tech inched its way into the third tier in 1999. What’s next? A formal blessing from the pope? Well, Montford and Tech president Donald Haragan did travel in mid-February to Rome, where the pontiff provided them with a tour of Vatican art treasures that could be exhibited at Tech in 2002.

Only 77 years old and operating without benefit of the state’s Permanent University Fund (which was established before its founding), Tech languished for much of its existence in the shadows of its much older, higher profile siblings in Austin and College Station. All that changed, however, when its board of regents, led by then-chairman Edward E. Whitacre, Jr., the CEO of SBC Communications, decided the university had outgrown its administrative structure, which had a single president directing Tech and its four far-flung campuses. For instance, Tech hadn’t mounted a fundraising effort in a decade, mostly because top officials were too busy. It was time to hire a chancellor. “We wanted a person with an advanced degree, someone who was a recognized leader, who had the skills to lead a complex organization and accomplish lots of things, like fundraising and getting more financial support from the government,” says former regent Carl Noe, a Dallas anesthesiologist.

Despite his outsider status, Montford’s name surfaced early. As a longtime Lubbock pol, he had friends throughout West Texas. And power: Regent Alan White, a Lubbock banker, said he was reluctant to extend the offer since the region benefited from having Montford in charge of the state budget. The only question was whether the idea appealed to him. “To our amazement, he wanted to do it,” says White. The reasons seem obvious in retrospect: With Republicans dominating statewide races, the opportunity came along at a good time for Montford, a Democrat. And after nearly fourteen years at the Capitol, he was ready for a new challenge.

But was the university ready for him? Hiring a non-academic as a top administrator certainly wasn’t, and isn’t, unheard of. Back in 1994 the University of Oklahoma tapped former governor and U.S. senator David Boren to be its president. The year Montford was hired, the University of Massachusetts named William Bulger, the former president of the Massachusetts Senate, as its president. The trend makes sense, really. With shrinking public funds, the job of running a major university is increasingly about fundraising; academicians, however well-published and respected, no longer fit the job description.

But faculty members are notoriously suspicious of outsiders and quick to take offense; one Tech administrator describes them as “wall-to-wall toes waiting to be stepped on.” Even a seasoned politician like Montford would have an uphill battle winning over such a sensitive group. “There were faculty with reservations,” recalls medieval history professor John Howe, who was president of Tech’s faculty senate when Montford was hired. “Senator Montford’s response was ‘Who’s better at fundraising: politicians or academics?’” The answer quickly became clear. Professors initially grumbled about the large outlays of cash that Montford directed at athletics—presiding over the completion of the $62 million United Spirit Arena was his first order of business as chancellor—but those complaints evaporated when he also found money for a faculty pay raise and championed the construction of a new English, philosophy, and education building.

As he began his fundraising activities, Montford first had to convince the regents that he could reach a goal of $300 million over five years. Some regents argued strongly to keep the figure at a more reasonable but still tough-to-achieve $250 million, but after so long in the Legislature, Montford wasn’t shy about asking for donations. “It’s just gritty pounding the pavement,” he says. “You’ve gotta ask.” To date, Montford has personally asked three hundred prospective donors. Some he knew, some he didn’t. Tech alumnus Bobby Stevenson, the founder and chairman of the Denver-based information services company Ciber, was a stranger to Montford until the Denver Business Journal named him entrepreneur of the year in 1997. Soon after, the chancellor was knocking on his door. Stevenson gave Tech $7 million—the largest individual donation to the university to date.

Montford correctly notes that his asking coincided with a runaway stock market. But fundraising at any time is an art, and Montford is clearly one of its masters. He cultivates contacts, inviting them to athletics events. He compiles a dossier on each of his targets, researching their backgrounds so that he asks for an appropriate sum. Sensing that donors in the nineties were capable of big gifts, he created the Society of the Spur, giving members a boxed set of silver-plated spurs for a $1 million donation to Tech. So far, 87 donors have earned their spurs. And, of course, he always makes his pitch in person. “You can’t delegate a request for a big donation,” he says. “These people want to see the chancellor. I’ve really burned up the miles.” Perhaps most important of all, Montford knows why he wants the money: to pay for more research; more scholarships; more endowed professorships, chairs, and other faculty support; and an improved campus infrastructure—in short, all the elements of a first-class university. “It doesn’t take a rocket scientist,” he says. “This place just needed a little ambition.”

“Ambition” is a word that crops up a lot these days in conversations about Tech, a stark contrast to the way things used to be. Not too long ago, as much because of geography as anything else, the university had a case of the doldrums. With depressed cotton prices, the decision by Texas Instruments to shut down a major plant, and the closure of Reese Air Force Base, a pall spread throughout the South Plains. But the region has turned itself around of late, and Tech’s momentum has a lot to do with it. “We’re the economic engine of West Texas,” boasts Dallas businessman Jim Sowell, the current chairman of Tech’s board of regents. “I can’t think of anything more important west of Interstate Highway 35 than Tech.”

He’s only mildly overstating the case. Tech’s research efforts, for example, are housed in the old Air Force base, which had been shuttered since 1997. Moving at lightning speed in government years, Tech developed the Institute for Environmental and Human Health and took over a portion of the 2,900-acre facility. The project, which lured ten researchers from Clemson University, in South Carolina, is studying the effects of toxic chemicals on people and the planet. Working in partnership with UT and the University of South Florida, the Tech team will be developing responses to chemical warfare. A newly constructed virtual-reality theater—straight out of a Tom Clancy novel—can recreate a building’s architecture in stereoscopic three-dimensional images and predict the flow of deadly poisons; the technology will be used to develop countermeasures and evacuation plans.

Meanwhile, Tech’s federal grant money has nearly doubled—from $13.4 million in 1996 to $25 million last year—thanks to a strategy of matching up the university’s strengths with particular needs of the federal government. Such as? “Wind research, a real no-brainer,” says David Schmidly, Tech’s vice president for research and graduate studies. “We are as good as any institution in the world.” On the windswept plains of West Texas, Tech’s wind engineers have successfully developed building standards that were adopted in Florida after Hurricane Andrew’s destruction and have created a “safe room” that can withstand tornadoes.

Does any of this make a difference in the life of a typical student? Yes, in the sense that research opportunities dictate the kind of rankings compiled by the likes of U.S. News and shape the perceptions of faculty members, both current and would-be. As Montford acknowledges, Lubbock isn’t a hot spot on the professorial job-search tour. “You gotta recruit ‘em like you do a football team,” he says.

It helps to have a good-looking campus—another challenge for Tech. A prospective student driving into town must pass miles of cotton fields before Tech’s Spanish Renaissance buildings break up the flatness. Trees are scarce. “First impressions are a large part of how a student selects a college,” ex-regent Noe says delicately, “and a lot of students don’t immediately appreciate the natural beauty of West Texas.” An aggressive landscaping effort, with a new fountain, flower beds, and actual trees around the United Spirit Arena, is attempting to correct the problem. Montford’s wife, Debbie, is spearheading the campaign; he calls her a “vigilante” for campus beautification.

Admittedly, Montford’s new life hasn’t been all papal blessings and bouquets. Early on, a flap erupted over the details of his compensation package, which called for a base pay of $270,000 and financial incentives for fundraising; the regents refigured his compensation after it drew public criticism. More recently, the Lubbock Avalanche has run stories questioning his $10,000 moving expenses and the number of high-level executives hired by the Tech System. And the chancellor drew fire when he snubbed El Paso officials who sought to expand Tech’s two-year medical branch there into a four-year independent medical school. After months of ill will between Montford and El Paso legislators, he agreed last August to start work on the expansion.

Then there was the athletic debacle. In 1996 the NCAA launched a full-scale investigation into Tech’s procedures for certifying that student-athletes met academic requirements. By the time the full story unraveled, Tech acknowledged that 76 athletes in eight sports had competed while academically ineligible. The scandal forced the university to withdraw from the NCAA basketball tournament in 1997 and from consideration for a football bowl game in 1998. “The hardest day of my life was having to face those kids and pull them out of that tournament for reasons not of their making,” says Montford, who blames the violations on an “awful” support staff in charge of verifying grades and eligibility.

Still smarting from the ordeal, Montford says Tech now enforces a no-pass, no-play rule that’s even stricter than NCAA regulations. And he regularly works out with the football team to build camaraderie with the student-athletes. “I tell them I have one fundamental request: I want you to graduate,” he says. The workouts have gone well, though he broke a finger last September catching a football. For a hands-on chancellor, it was another day at the office.

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