Former Texas Comptroller John Sharp, a Democrat, is preparing to enter the higher education arena as the new chancellor of the Texas A&M University System — a move that will become official in early September. Though he’s logged many years in public service (he’s also been a state legislator and a railroad commissioner), Sharp said he’s heard that the politics he’s about to encounter in academia “are 10 times worse.”
That’s even more the case lately as Texas higher education, and particularly Texas A&M University and the University of Texas, has been involved in a still-unfolding controversy over the future of the state’s public universities.
Three years ago, Gov. Rick Perry began pushing regents to implement controversial changes similar to those developed by Austin businessman Jeff Sandefer and published by the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank. It was those solutions, and fears among some in the UT community that they might be implemented at their school, that largely fueled the current upheaval.
Under the leadership of former Chancellor Mike McKinney, Perry's former chief of staff, the Texas A&M System went the furthest in implementing the proposals. After drawing intense criticism from other leaders in the higher education community as well as faculty members on campus, some of them have since been walked back — officially, because of budget considerations.
On the day he was named the sole finalist for the chancellorship, Sharp pledged a style of leadership that could go a long way toward calming the waters. Rather than implement ideas from the top down, which Sharp said tends to create a heightened level of resistance, he said he’d talk to everyone involved at each level and develop plans from within. “If you do top down, a lot of times you may get your initial result, but if you don’t eventually get the folks at the mid to lower levels … it is a fleeting victory,” he said. “You’ve got to get everybody involved.”
This sort of approach has drawn praise from a group of prominent Texans who, by forming a group they call the Texas Coalition for Excellence in Higher Education, gathered together to oppose the implementation of Sandefer’s proposals. In a statement praising the selection of Sharp, they said, “The coalition was formed to support constructive ideas to improve our universities rather than simplistic mandates that threaten to undermine excellence; it appears John Sharp understands the difference.”
Early indications from the other side of the fence have also been positive. Sharp’s comments appear to have connected with those who have been supportive of changes to higher education, as well. In addition to pledging a bottom-up approach to reform, Sharp also made clear that he intended to make the A&M System as efficient as possible, offering “the best education at the lowest cost.”
“He obviously knows Texas A&M well and what makes it a great university, and earned a reputation at the comptroller's office for finding ways to make government organizations more efficient and effective,” said Justin Keener, a spokesman for a group called Texas Business for Higher Education, which has been supportive of efforts to enact changes to address efficiency issues. “Higher education is facing significant challenges to constantly improve the quality, affordability and accessibility of their services, and he appears to be up for that job.”
Senate Higher Education Chairwoman Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, who has been vocal about her disapproval of Perry’s recent approach to higher ed, said she couldn’t think of a better selection than Sharp. Though Perry, busy running a presidential campaign, has not put out an official statement on the matter, Sharp observed, “I would assume if he’d spoken ill, he could have nixed this pretty well. The board has a great deal of respect for his opinion.”
Sharp and Perry were roommates at Texas A&M and later ran against each other for the position of lieutenant governor. “There was a brief time around 1998 that we pretty much hated each other," Sharp said. "But our relationship is very good.”
As Sharp prepares to review the system and make his mark, which he says will start with the chancellor’s office, it’s entirely possible that some of these early good vibes could turn sour.
Presidents within the Texas A&M University System have been invited to dine with their new chancellor in Austin on Friday, followed by a meeting on Saturday morning.
“As a person who’s been involved in higher education as long as I have, I know John Sharp’s name,” said Prairie View A&M University President George C. Wright, who did not appear particularly fazed by Sharp’s appointment.
“We’ve never met. So, I don’t know him personally. Since I’ve always been able to work with whoever I need to, I’m confident I’ll be able to work with Mr. Sharp, as well,” he said.