The Search for the Next UT System Chancellor
Wed March 19, 2014 4:19 pm

In the April issue, which went online today, I wrote a short piece about the search to replace outgoing UT System chancellor Francisco Cigarroa and the news that Governor Perry had indicated to the board that it should consider Kyle Janek for the job. My story went to the printer two weeks ago (ah, print journalism!), but I spoke to several sources close to the board, close to UT, and close to the governor’s office.

Though Janek’s office at the Health and Human Services Commission did not respond to a request for an interview, well-placed sources told me that he has indicated through back channels that he will not go after UT-Austin president Bill Powers. I think that Perry has come to realize that Powers is going to outlast him, and Janek presents an opportunity for the governor’s priorities to be carried forward after he leaves office but in a way that represents a change from the direct engagement we saw under Chairman Gene Powell. But unlike Paul, I don’t believe that Janek is a slam dunk. Far from it, in fact: I think the current board will resist any appearance that it will reflexively follow Perry’s lead:

[C]onsider that while Perry has the power to appoint the regents, he has not had a lot of luck in persuading them to pick his people to run our public universities. In 2002, at his alma mater, Texas A&M, he wanted Phil Gramm installed as president; the board selected Robert Gates. When the chancellor position at UT came open in 2009, he backed John Montford; the board tapped Cigarroa. And last year, when Texas A&M was choosing an interim president, he endorsed an old colleague, Guy Diedrich; the board chose Mark Hussey. It’s tough to imagine he’ll have any better luck when he’s got one foot out the door of the Governor’s Mansion. “There is a perception that Governor Perry’s power has eroded as he approaches the end of his tenure,” says H. Scott Caven, a former UT regent chair.

Regardless, Powers should not even be an issue for the incoming chancellor, and it’s inappropriate for him to be a litmus test of some kind. Bill Powers won, the war is over. The System is too big and too important to the state to be focused on one individual (remember that UT System has nine campuses, six health institutions, 87,000 employees, and an annual operating budget of $14.6 billion).

The larger problem is that nearly every person I spoke to believed that the turmoil over the past few years will make the search for a quality chancellor much harder because the top candidates will be scared off by the overt politics that have embroiled the board. That is further complicated by the very real possibility that the search will move forward as impeachment hearings against Regent Wallace Hall gear up—a terrible situation for the System and the university.

UT is an international brand, and the search that Chairman Paul Foster has announced should include candidates who are not living in Austin. Part of that is because of the reach of the school, and part of it is because an Austin-insider who knows the Legislature matters less to the System now than in years past because of how funding has changed over the past few decades (in 1984 the Lege contributed about 47 percent of UT’s budget; today it’s closer to 13 percent). But as bad as tensions have been within the board—worse perhaps than any time going back to the 1920s, when there was a movement afoot to move the UT-Austin campus—I think the Board, and its relationship with the Lege, will soon improve. A new governor is on the way, a new chairman is in place, and people are eager to move past this episode.

( Image Courtesy of the University of Texas at Austin )

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