At A&M, Sharp Charts Smooth Course for Major Changes

Chancellor of the Texas A&M University System, John Sharp, photographed at the System offices in Austin on March 14, 2013
Chancellor of the Texas A&M University System, John Sharp, photographed at the System offices in Austin on March 14, 2013

COLLEGE STATION — When the Texas A&M University System was looking for a new chancellor in 2011, alumni groups told Richard Box, the chairman of the board of regents, that the board should conduct nationwide search of academics.

“It was an interesting, well-meaning idea,” Box said, but he was more intrigued by advice he received from Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, who told him to “find somebody who can go over there to the Legislature and can communicate with those folks and also is well-known in the corporate offices in Texas.”

Though former Texas Comptroller John Sharp fit that description, the ultimate selection of the longtime Democrat and former political rival of both Dewhurst and Gov. Rick Perry caught many by surprise. But halfway through his first legislative session as a chancellor, and after a year and a half on the job, the benefits of Sharp’s political savvy are on full display as he shepherds the A&M System through a far smoother session than its chief rival, the University of Texas System.

When Sharp took the job — he, like Perry, is a Texas A&M University alumnus — both systems were in a state of politically tinged turmoil. Since then, lawmakers have focused their attention on Austin, where the tension between the UT System’s board and the University of Texas at Austin seems to worsen by the day. Meanwhile, Sharp is receiving high marks for his overhaul of the Texas A&M system, which has included acquiring the system’s first law school and an announced plan to double enrollment at its flagship university’s engineering department.

“We keep a bunch of balls in the air all the time,” Sharp said recently from his College Station office after he was briefed on upcoming initiatives. “Every now and then two or three will fall off or turn out to be a bad idea, or we’ll drop it, because it turns out not to be a good deal.” In the last year, the A&M system has also received praise for the release of a public interactive database and made waves by consolidating its health science center and flagship university, which is completing its first year in the Southeastern Conference. And Sharp is ready for more.

The Texas A&M University System includes 11 universities and seven state agencies. As he was briefed on other potential initiatives, most of them centered around on the flagship campus, Sharp imagined the news conferences he might get hold. “I love that stuff,” he said.

Of many major announcements made during his tenure, the biggest came when the system landed a federal contract worth more than $285 million to establish a center for the manufacturing of medicine and vaccines, an effort that began before his arrival.

The announcement of the contract was celebrated by about 300 people in June in a downtown Austin ballroom. But the behind-the-scenes work, where Sharp excels, was not over.

To seal the deal, the A&M System had persuaded the state’s leaders to approve a $40 million payout from the Texas Emerging Technology Fund, a discretionary pot of money overseen by the governor’s office, from which the system has already benefited.

As lawmakers were crafting a draft budget early in the current legislative session, a clause requiring the Texas A&M System to demonstrate progress on the project in order to receive the funds was considered as an additional accountability measure.

So Sharp wrote to Dewhurst and House Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio. “The A&M System will perform its obligations,” he wrote. “There is no alternative. You have my word, and you have the commitment of the A&M System.”

The provision was quietly removed, first in the Senate and then in the House, never to be a part of the budget debate.

“One can say all they want about politicians,” Sharp said months later, “but politicians to other politicians, their word is almost always good. It’s written in stone and it’s good, and if you ever violate that, then you’ll never be able to do it again.”

Of the state’s six public university system chancellors, four are former politicians. But Sharp is widely viewed as a singular breed.

“He might be the most outside-the-box and creative person I’ve met in higher education,” said state Rep. Eric Johnson, D-Dallas.

Johnson and Sharp are working together to recruit high-achieving minority students to Texas A&M University, which the lawmaker observed “has been a little bit of a tough nut to crack for the Latino and African-American communities.”

The university is still more than 65 percent white, about 15 percent Hispanic, and about 3 percent black, according to the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board.

Sharp said increasing minority enrollment on the Texas A&M campus is simply a matter of reaching out.

“It’s like the law school,” he said. “We’ve been trying to get a law school for 40 years. But when I got here, I found that nobody tried. They just wanted one.”

Notoriously strong-willed, Sharp’s tenure has not been without controversy. He spearheaded an effort to privatize dining and maintenance services on the flagship campus, which upset many faculty and staff. But in the Capitol, the projected $260 million in revenue and savings associated with the project was greeted warmly.

“I appreciated his focus on reducing costs and starting there as opposed to trying to dive into the classroom first,” said House Higher Education Chairman Dan Branch, R-Dallas.

Sharp recently announced that the system’s other institutions would be joining the outsourcing plan. Meanwhile, the University of Texas at Austin is considering following suit.

“Ten years ago, we would have been saying, ‘We’ve got to catch UT,’" Sharp mused. “I don’t want to insult anybody, but they’re not in our windshield anymore.”

Regarding his own future, Sharp said it did not include any more political runs, and he hinted at a fading affiliation with the Democratic Party.

“I was always a conservative Democrat,” he said, “and if you want to vote for anybody here in Brazos County, you have to vote in the Republican primary.”

It is not lost on him that without Perry and Dewhurst, two Republicans who defeated him, he might not hold his current position.

“Everything bad happens to set up something good,” he said, something he learned from his grandmother. “I’ve always found that to be true. I think if most folks look back on the history of their lives, they’ll see that.”

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