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Brian McCall: The TT Interview

The longtime House member from Plano and newly installed chancellor of the Texas State University System (sorry, Sen. Wentworth) talked to the Tribune on Thursday about why he took the job, the importance of Hispanic outreach, the case against cutting the state's higher ed budget, the trouble with the Legislature and what a good governor shouldn't do.

Chancellor Brian McCall of the Texas State University System speaks with Tribune reporter Reeve Hamilton on Aug. 5, 2010.

With the Capitol looming large in the window of his corner office in downtown Austin, the new chancellor of the Texas State University System muses, "It's like Joan Rivers says: 'It's not who you know — it's whom.'" Fresh off of nearly two decades as the Republican state representative from Plano, Brian McCall has amassed a considerable Rolodex — and he plans to make full use of it, calling upon whomever it takes to raise the profile of a system that often finds itself in the shadow of its larger brethren.

McCall was first elected to the Legislature in 1991. He eventually cashed in his considerable seniority to secure a position on the House Higher Education Committee. “Those are the issues I like,” he says. “That’s how Texas will change in a significant way.” He himself has experienced Texas higher ed from the bottom up, earning a bachelor’s degree from Baylor University, a master’s from SMU and a Ph.D. from the University of Texas at Dallas.

The task of raising the productivity and profile of the Texas State system presents a diverse and difficult challenge. The eight universities in McCall's charge run the gamut in size and mission, from the more than 30,000 students at Texas State University in San Marcos to the approximately 2,000 students at Sul Ross State University in Alpine. None of the eight carry the cache of a University of Texas or Texas A&M. None are among the seven “emerging research universities” around Texas vying to be the next tier-one school, thanks to legislation co-authored by then Rep. McCall.

When he was accepted the chancellorship, McCall was slammed in an angry letter from state Sen. Jeff Wentworth, R-San Antonio, the miffed runner-up for the position. Wentworth challenged the Texas State board of regents for, among other things, hiring an individual with no clear connection to the system. At the time, McCall opted not to respond.

McCall isn’t the only new addition to the Texas State family this fall. He recently hired Dana Gibson, the former president of National University in California, to serve as the first female president of Sam Houston State University. There’s also the new football team at Lamar University, where the last football season was two years before McCall was elected to the House; money and attendance dried up in 1989. Attending the Cardinals' first game in September is what he says he's looking forward to the most this semester.

McCall sat down to talk with the Tribune about his new job, and his old, on Thursday. What follows is an edited transcript of the conversation.

TT: What do you take into account when you're hiring a president?

McCall: The best and brightest with the best vision who can get us where we need to be. Dana Gibson at Sam Houston State is all of those things.  She’s 48 years old. She’s been a university president. Great background. And that’s a phenomenal university, so our expectations are high.

Audio highlights: Brian McCall

TT: Where do we need to be?

McCall: Each university has different rates of success. Texas State-San Marcos is in the top five in six-year graduation rates. We can do better at other schools. Sam Houston is doing well. We are trending right. We just need to speed it up. 

One of the most immoral things we can do in my opinion is [to] admit a student, have them take out the loans, incur the debt and not do everything [we] can to help them reach their dreams and goals and get through the pipeline. So we’re going to focus heavily on that. We want to get the best and brightest, but we’re typically, in many of our schools, [getting] first generation students. That’s why it’s important: Because a first-generation college student who becomes a college graduate will marry a college graduate and their kids will be college graduates.

TT: You spent time on the Higher Education Committee. Were there things you noticed ... that they could be doing better or differently that could make that process easier for students?

McCall: One of the differences is, when I was in the Capitol, we never really solved a problem. We viewed it as a great success if we made some traction, made some progress, advanced the ball. Typically that’s what happens in a legislative body. In a university setting, that’s unacceptable. We need solutions. We need to solve problems.

TT: What’s at stake for the state if it doesn’t continue to get better?

McCall: If we’re successful, we eradicate disease. If we’re successful in higher ed, we lower attrition rates in prisons. If we’re successful in higher ed, we keep more people out of prisons and on the streets and in jobs and contributing. If we’re successful, economic development progresses at a faster click than it does if we’re not. If we’re successful, people will want to move to Texas at a higher degree than other states. If we’re successful in Texas in higher ed, we succeed in just about every level.

TT: In this session, you have the budget deficit. Everyone is [being asked] to cut 10 percent. Are you being asked to do more with less and is that possible?

McCall: We are, but we can’t wait for the storm to blow over — we’ve just got to learn to work in the rain, and that’s what we will do. Yet every chancellor, I think, will be fairly united in making the case as to why it’s counter-intuitive to cut in some areas for some reasons. For example, two years ago, California cut $2.8 billion from higher ed. At the same time, every other state was flat, and Texas put $1.2 billion into higher ed. The results are clear: The best minds [among professors] in the United States, for the first time, started looking to come to Texas for their higher ed careers. Students from other states are looking at Texas for various reasons.

TT: Of course, the systems are different from each other. Texas State doesn’t have a flagship the way the others do.

McCall: This is a unique system. We’re the oldest — we’re celebrating our centennial next year. We’re the third largest, and we’re the fastest-growing. 72,000 students. 15,000 faculty and staff. We ranch 22,500 acres, so we’re one of the biggest ranchers in Texas. We teach ranching at some of our campuses. Our ranch holdings are bigger than Manhattan. So we’re quite an operation there. We’re a hotelier. We have two golf courses. We do a lot of things that other systems don’t do.

TT: Are you doing any outreach to the Hispanic population in anticipation of the changing demographics of the state?

McCall: Yes, and [we] have been for some time. In fact, Denise Trauth, the president of Texas State–San Marcos, set as a goal some years ago to increase the Hispanic population of the students at Texas State, and we’re at 24.5 percent at the moment. When we get to 25 percent, there are all sorts of implications of it being a Hispanic-serving institution — all positive, in terms of federal funds and support. So, yes, we’re already doing that. But the makeup of the institutions and our focus on getting first-generation college students into our campuses ... has been and will continue to be a focus. 

TT: In your book [The Power of the Texas Governor: Connally to Bush], you looked at what the governor can do to extend his power beyond the limitations of the office. Does any of that apply to what you can do here to extend your power?

McCall: A good governor should not get in fights that are other people’s fights, so a good chancellor should not get involved in the day to day of a president’s job and let the president run the university. A good governor realizes that what’s important in [the Capitol] is seldom urgent, and what’s urgent is seldom important, and to take a breath at every crisis and think it through and have good advisers who can tell you things you don’t want to hear. That’s important for a governor and a chancellor. …  And, of course, just developing deep relationships. A good governor will get to know freshmen, because they will chair [the] appropriations [committee] at some point. Those sorts of things are parallel.

TT: You didn’t have much of a connection to Texas State — at least on paper — before. What attracted you to this system in particular?

McCall: My dad was once interviewed, and they concluded the interview by saying, “Mr. McCall, it’s clear that you like to be where the action is.” And he said, “No, I like to be the action.” This system is the action. This is where the action in higher ed will take place in Texas. This is increasingly where first-generation college students will go and graduate. The [tier-one] research institutions have their role, and we may be one [in the future], but that will just be one of the augmentations we will have. We’re changing at a fast clip. 

TT: Of course, the comment that you didn’t have much of a connection to Texas State comes from that Jeff Wentworth letter. I asked you if you wanted to comment on it [previously] and you didn’t want to. I don’t know if you want to comment on it now.

McCall: No, I don’t. But, you know, when the board of regents set out to find the next chancellor, [a connection to Texas State] wasn’t in the [request for proposals]. They were looking for ... the best fit. Thirty-six of the 38 applicants could have been eliminated if that were the criteria. When Baylor looks for a president, [the regents] don’t look for Baylor grads. When SMU looks for a president, [the regents] don’t look for to someone who has chaired the alumni association.

TT: Would you say the political world is something you’re no longer a part of?

McCall: Politics is not something that is part of my life anymore, other than as a registered voter and [through my] friendships with politicians. But they’re not my friends because they’re politicians — they’re my friends because we both were [politicians] at one time and became friends. To everything, there is a season. I’m so lucky that for 20 years I got to work in the Capitol as an elected official representing North Texas. 

The day it was announced that I would have this job, I introduced [a friend of mine in Plano]. He’s a politician. I said, “He loves politics. But to me, politics is so yesterday.” That’s kind of how I feel. I love it. It was something I went through that will always be important to me, but now I’m an educator, and that’s my focus.

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