In August, the University of Texas Board of Regents appointed James B. Milliken as the UT System’s new chancellor. Before coming to Texas, Milliken, a lawyer by training, served as chancellor of the City University of New York and president of the University of Nebraska. Milliken arrives during a tumultuous period for the UT System. His predecessor, Bill McRaven, resigned in 2017 after a controversial three-year tenure during which he clashed with state political leaders over purchasing a $215 million plot of land in Houston. Later that year, the Board of Regents launched a task force to review the organization and effectiveness of the UT System.
That task force’s report, which was made public last month, recommended downsizing the UT System administration by eliminating 70 to 110 full-time equivalent (FTE) jobs and reducing the number of “top-down” initiatives such as Chancellor McRaven’s “Quantum Leaps.” Three days before the report was released, Board of Regents chair Sara Martinez Tucker unexpectedly resigned after just over a year, reportedly because of disagreements with the report.
Between dealing with the fallout from the report and preparing for the upcoming legislative session, Chancellor Milliken clearly has his hands full, but he recently made time to talk with Texas Monthly.
Texas Monthly: On your first day on the job, you were presented with the task force report. What was your reaction?
James Milliken: Well, I knew the report was coming. I had read about the task force, and I don’t think there were any significant surprises. As I’ve said, these discussion about the appropriate role of the system vis-à-vis campuses take place all over the country in university systems. It’s not the first time I’ve been a part of conversations about this.
TM: What have you learned from being head of the CUNY system about the relationship between member institutions and the system?
JM: There are clearly roles that are important to each. There are certain things that are the province of a board, its executive officers, and its administrators. The core functions of a university are teaching students, conducting research, delivering healthcare, and performing outreach to the state. Those are all done at campuses, and they’re done well there. That’s where the faculty are, that’s where the students are.
TM: Chancellor McRaven was widely perceived as trying to impose too many initiatives on individual institutions during his tenure—his Quantum Leaps are criticized by name in the report. What did you learn from his missteps?
JM: I was pretty busy being chancellor of CUNY during his tenure, so most of what I learned during that time concerned what I was doing in New York. I think Bill McRaven’s a great man. He had ambitious plans for the University of Texas System. Many of those will be accomplished by the fourteen institutions of the system. I doubt that that’s much different from how he envisioned them being accomplished. I can’t speculate on whether we have a different approach, but I’ve tried to lay out my approach to system leadership. Unlike many people, not just Bill, I have the benefit of having been in this business in these kind of roles for three decades.
TM: From your statement to the Board of Regents at the board meeting last week, it sounds like you see the system’s purpose primarily as serving the individual institutions.
JM: There are very important functions of university systems. Some of those involve where there are economies of scale, or expertise that can be more efficiently provided in one place. That’s a great opportunity for shared services and cost savings. There are also fundamental responsibilities of the system administration and the board it serves that relate to the governance function of the board and the coordination that is mandated by state statute. But typically it is not the home of academic or service or research programs. That work is uniquely positioned at the institutional level. I do agree strongly with that.
TM: One of the task force’s specific recommendations was to consider eliminating 70 to 110 FTE jobs. You didn’t say yes or no on that, but you did say you wanted to move quickly to implement the recommendations.
JM: What I said on Thursday is my position today: I agree with much in the report. It is useful to have a report that reflects the position of the board and political leadership in the state. I have only been here eight weeks, and I take seriously the directive in the report that additional analysis will be required in each area before making decisions. As I told the board, I’ve been working on this since I got here. By the beginning of next year I plan to have a plan in place that will address the programs that will continue here, that will address potential outsourcing. There will be, necessarily, reductions in the workforce here.
TM: To put it simply, is the UT System administration too big?
JM: The UT System administration has gone through growth and reduction of size over the years. It is now significantly down from where it was at a high point a few years ago. There are clearly recommendations in the report for areas where the task force believes it was unnecessarily large. That’s the work I’m continuing to look at now, and that’s the analysis under way.
TM: What are your top priorities for the UT System?
JM: I start with a fundamental belief that talent is distributed universally but that opportunity is not. The role of public higher education in this country, which I believe is one of the greatest engines of social and economic mobility the world has ever seen, is to provide the opportunity to match up with the talent. Texas is the second-largest state in the country and the third-youngest state in the country. There are some estimates that the population will almost double in the next 30 years. We’ve got a big job ahead of us to make sure we have the necessary post-secondary opportunities in this state for the talented people that are growing up here. Higher education has never been more important. Almost all the new jobs that are being created require education beyond high school.
TM: During the last legislative session, there was a big fight over higher education, with the Senate trying to drastically cut spending. What would you say to people who say we spend too much on higher education?
JM: Legislators have a big, difficult job. There are a lot of demands. But I do firmly believe that we need to offer public higher education in Texas that will allow students to succeed and allow the state to thrive. I think an investment in higher education is one of the best investments that states can make. It’s an investment in the future of their people.
TM: There’s a perception that Chancellor McRaven didn’t consult enough with state political leaders and didn’t work very well with them. Have you started meeting with political leaders, and how do you think you’ll work with them?
JM: Even before I moved to Texas I started meeting with executive and legislative leaders. I have continued to do that as I’ve visited the system’s fourteen institutions across the state. I believe it’s an essential part of the role of chancellor to communicate with the people of the state and their elected leadership. They provide the single largest source of support for the university system, and they have the right to hold us accountable. I hope they want to hear from me about how the university system is doing. I’ve always felt that if you don’t enjoy politics at some level, you probably shouldn’t be in a leadership position in higher education.
TM: What are your priorities for the upcoming legislative session?
JM: My first priority is to make sure we’re investing in our higher education institutions through our formula funding and what have been referred to as “special items” that support our institutions. The capital needs of our institutions are critically important as they grow to meet the needs of the state. I’ve seen examples of that traveling to our institutions across the state.
TM: Almost every leader of public higher education I’ve ever interviewed has pointed to the University of California System as a model. The UC System, for instance, has six universities in the U.S. News and World Report’s top 50 colleges, compared to the UT system’s one. What does the UT System need to do to catch up with UC?
JM: I don’t look at the world through the UC prism. In my view it isn’t about catching up with UC—there are many things going on in Texas that I much prefer to California. I know you work for a magazine, but I don’t think you measure your success through the rankings that a popular magazine assigns. You measure success by looking at what you want to achieve. Which elements of those highly rated California institutions are meaningful to Texas? Do we want to increase our research productivity? Do we want to enhance our programs to attract the best scholars and give the best education. Yes, we certainly do. Do we want to measure ourselves by the percentage of students that we reject? I have a bit of a problem with that. We need to determine for ourselves what’s important to the state of Texas.
TM: A lot of parents are concerned about the affordability of a college education, how many years it will take their children to graduate, and whether they’ll be able to get good jobs when they graduate. What would you say to those parents?
JM: The first thing I’d say is that I still believe public education is one of the best investments the you can make for your child. It’s not just about getting a better job and making more money. Every social indicator we measure shows a positive correlation between higher education and better health, longer life, less reliance on the social welfare system. Do we need to manage our costs well? Absolutely. Do we need to be as cost-effective as we can? Do we need to support students, particularly those with economic needs, so they can manage the cost of a college education. Absolutely. I’ve done that throughout my career, and I’m going to continue doing that in Texas.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.