Taking a chancellor
Fri December 12, 2008 1:47 pm

The search for a successor to Mark Yudof as UT chancellor has become a heated high-stakes political battle. The two top choices are former state senator John Montford, who has served as chancellor of the Texas Tech system and more recently has been an executive with AT&T, and Dr. Francisco Cigarroa, president of the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio. The simple way to characterize this race is that Montford is the political choice and Cigarroa is the academic choice. The decision rests with the University of Texas Regents -- and could be decided as soon as their December meeting next week -- but Governor Perry, who has a history of getting involved in high-level academic battles (most notably the selections of the last two presidents of Texas A&M), has been lobbying hard for Montford.

It's understandable that Perry, who has generally kept his distance from UT's business, would feel more comfortable with a chancellor with whom he has a personal relationship. But Perry's history of installing his allies in key positions (including chancellor) at the Texas A&M System has made a lot of UT folks nervous that the governor, who has made higher education reform one of his priorities, would do the same at UT. The universities in general, and UT in particular, are not fans of Perry's reforms, and one of the concerns about Montford as chancellor is whether he would be loyal to Perry or to UT.

The argument for a chancellor who understands how the Capitol works is that UT, with its high academic ambitions, has an insatiable appetite for more funding. This session is particularly sensitive because a number of legislators are on the warpath against tuition deregulation and want to try to reassert some degree of legislative control over the cost of attending state universities, especially UT. Other issues never change. Rival state universities (Tech in particular) are hugely jealous and resentful of UT. Appropriators over the years have tended to regard UT as arrogant, demanding, and elitist. The typical legislator's "vision" for UT is not academic excellence; it is a university where he doesn't have to listen to his constituents complain that their kids can't get into school because of the top ten percent rule, where he can get free tickets to the football games, and where, in a pinch, he can demand that they hire one of his staffers. Montford can minister to all of these concerns. Another job of the chancellor is fundraising, a function Montford performed well at Tech.

The case for Cigarroa is that he is a rising star in the academic world. He took over a medical institution that was operating at a deficit and turned it into a powerhouse of academic medicine. His own academic credentials were awarded by Yale, Harvard, and Johns Hopkins. Cigarroa is nationally known and has published papers in the field of infant and pediatric surgery. He is the first Hispanic to head an academic health center. This experience, his supporters say, makes him the right person to handle the coming intersection of academics and demographics that will have an impact on all Texas universities. UT wants a top-tier university system, and its backers worry that Montford does not have the credentials to bring UT the national and international recognition the university craves.

Frankly, I think the goal of a top-tier university system modeled California's or New York's is going to be hard to achieve in Texas, no matter who is chancellor. Aside from UT, UT-Dallas, and the top medical institutions (Southwestern, M.D. Anderson, UTMB, and the San Antonio Health Science Center), most of the institutions in the system are entry-level schools with low admissions standards and even lower graduation rates. With the exception of UTEP and UT-Arlington, almost all of the system schools came into the UT system for political reasons, either as part of a settlement of a lawsuit, negotiated by Bob Bullock, or as part of a plan dreamed up by the late Frank Erwin, who dominated the Board of Regents in the sixties and early seventies, to put UT campuses in enough state Senate districts that UT's grip on the Permanent University Fund would be secure from raids by its ever-envious rivals.

Montford has had a distinguished career in three fields: politics, academia, and business (at AT&T). But in this competition, he represents small ball, and Cigarroa represents big ball. The UT powers-that-be, at least those who are nonpolitical, want Cigarroa. They believe that he has the star power to tap into the national network of research grants, and to be able to recruit and retain academic stars. UT wants more research dollars, and a medical school associated with the main university, to boost its visibility and bolster its claim to the top rank of public universities.

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