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