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A&M Regents, Faculty Clash Over Languishing Presidential Search; Post Remains Unfilled a Year After Bob Gates’ Departure

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There’s a simmering dispute between the Faculty Senate’s Search Advisory Committee and the A&M Board of Regents over selection of the university’s next president. The position has been vacant for more than a year. A terse exchange of letters between Angie Hill Price, speaker of the Faculty Senate, and, for the Regents, chairman Bill Jones, reveals the rising tension at A&M over the filling of the vacancy created by Bob Gates’ resignation to become Secretary of Defense. Gates went out of his way to establish a relationship with the Faculty Senate, but it is clear from this exchange that there is no trust between the two sides. Issues of governance can do great harm to a university, and this one has the potential to do more damage than the search for a new football coach.

Here is Price’s letter, dated October 5. All boldfacing is mine:

Dear Chairman Jones,

On behalf of the Faculty Senate of Texas A&M University, we the Executive Committee write to express our concern over the Board of Regents’ considering candidates for President who are not on the list of candidates submitted by the Search Advisory Committee. We admired the original well designed process, but from the outside, it appears that the process has been abandoned.

While we recognize the Regents’ authority to select the next President of Texas A&M University, we firmly believe that the next President should be selected from among the list of leading and acceptable candidates submitted by the Search Advisory Committee, or the search should be constituted anew. To do otherwise, in our opinion, creates a break in the shared governance that binds the University community and the Board together in our quest for excellence. In addition, we are worried that there will be a deep negative impact on faculty morale and on the University’s image in the national academic community.

The next President of Texas A&M University will need the full support of the University community in order to be successful. We are concerned that, without the validation that comes from being identified as a leading and acceptable candidate by the Search Advisory Committee, the next President will be weakened by the controversy surrounding the selection process.

We would welcome the opportunity to discuss these issues with you and the Board.

Jones’ response, dated November 6, a full month after Price’s letter, rejects any notion of shared governance:

Dear Madame Speaker:

We are in receipt of your letter expressing your concerns over the Board of Regents’ process for the selection of the next President of Texas of Texas A&M University. Your concern is duly noted, however, please be advised that the authority to select the next President of Texas A&M University rests solely with the Board of Regents pursuant to the laws of the State of Texas and the System policies adopted adopted by the Texas A&M University Board of Regents. To the extent there has been or will be any involvement by search advisory committees, outside sources, headhunters, friends, and those who care a great deal about Texas A&M, the ultimate decision and the ultimate responsibility for that decision rests entirely with the Board.

While shared governance has its place, the ultimate responsibility and charge for governance in the selection of Presidents for universities in the System lies solely and completely in the Board of Regents. We strive to be inclusive and to maintain a high positive morale within the ranks of Texas A&M University. However, to the extent any decision we make as a Board unintentionally creates a negative impact on faculty morale, we will accept those unfortunate consequences. We are, therefore, deliberative in our process and careful in our analysis so that we pick the right person for Texas A&M University.

I trust that once the selection is made, we can count on the Faculty Senate, as well as the entire University community, for its support of the candidate and for Texas A&M University. I further trust that there will be no further thoughts or threats of controversy surrounding the process.

While we have some interest in discussing these issues with you in greater detail, we are limited in what we can disclose to you about the status or the individuals we are considering. If you have any other questions, as always, please feel free to contact me.

What is going on here? Did Frank Erwin get reincarnated as Bill Jones? The tone of this letter is so arrogant, so dismissive of the university’s faculty, so demeaning to people who give service to the university in good faith, that it’s hard to believe Jones signed his name to it. Jones is a smart fellow. I can’t believe that he didn’t stop to think about how much damage a letter like this can do. This is the sort of infighting you’d expect to find on a small-town school board that has to choose a superintendent, not something coming from the governing board of a major research university. I don’t think that there’s a major research university in the country where a faculty search committee doesn’t narrow the field for the ultimate governing body to make the choice. It ensures that quality, not politics, will determine the selection of the next president.

I fear the worst for A&M. I believe that Rick Perry is involved in the presidential selection process up to his eyeballs–and so do the people I know at A&M. He has stuffed the administration with his former staffers and he is calling the shots. As much as he loves A&M, he really needs to think about what his regents are doing. I’ve seen what political meddling did to the University of Texas in Erwin’s day. It took years for UT to regain the lost momentum. A&M can not afford to make the same mistake. It is too important to the future of the state to be subjected to political whim.

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