When he revealed to employees of the Texas A&M University System on Tuesday that he would depart July 1, Chancellor Mike McKinney termed the memo his "retirement" announcement. "The time has come for me to step aside," he wrote. Richard Box, the chairman of the A&M board of regents, issued a statement extending his appreciation to McKinney for "his leadership and service to The Texas A&M University System."
But was McKinney's departure really voluntary? Multiple higher education sources with knowledge of the events that transpired before the surprise announcement tell the Tribune that McKinney, a former chief of staff to Gov. Rick Perry who is in his fifth year at the top of the Aggie organizational chart, was told by members of the board of regents at a meeting Friday afternoon that it was time for a change. Box was one of the regents present at the meeting, the sources say.
Neither McKinney nor Box have been available for comment since Tuesday's announcement. System spokesman Jason Cook told the Tribune in a statement, "Chancellor McKinney has indicated that it was simply his time to step aside and retire. It is our longstanding practice to decline comment on matters involving personnel.”
The impetus for McKinney's exit is not known, but it comes at a time of significant turmoil in the Texas higher education community, which is actively debating a set of reforms favored by the governor and his supporters at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative Austin-based think tank. McKinney's role in implementing the reforms at A&M drew criticism from all quarters, according to emails obtained by the Tribune through open records requests (see below).
In 2010, the system compiled data regarding professor's salaries relative to how much revenue they brought into the system, displaying in red those professors who failed to cover their salaries. The spreadsheet was inspired by one of seven "breakthrough solutions" for higher education that have been promoted by Perry and the TPPF and were crafted by TPPF board member Jeff Sandefer, the founder of the private Acton School of Business. McKinney and other system officials were chastised by A&M faculty members and received an admonishment from the Association of American Universities, a prestigious group of research universities, over the spreadsheet and its implications.
Emails reveal that the chancellor was feeling the heat from the other direction as well. In an email to TPPF president Brooke Rollins, TPPF board member and University of Texas System regent Brenda Pejovich and A&M regent Phil Adams, responding to coverage of the A&M system's document, Sandefer wrote that "McKinney WAY over complicated the data" and that "his methodology [sic] is flawed."
This dissatisfaction wasn't just a fleeting feeling. Weeks earlier, Sandefer's father, oilman J.D. "Jakie" Sandefer, wrote to A&M regent Jim Schwertner that the younger Sandefer "cannot figure out why A&M has not gone ahead and implemented Reform #1 which is of course what we thought Mike was putting together."
Schwertner responded, "Just tell Jeff to Saddle Up. We are doing a lot more than staff knows about."
In October, Sandefer wrote another email to his father, criticizing McKinney's implementation of a different one of his reforms: providing large cash rewards to professors that received the best student evaluations of their teaching. Sandefer wrote, "McKinney made a serious error" by only giving awards to the top 3 percent of those who applied for the awards. In Sandefer's plan, if a teacher in the top 3 percent of all teachers applied, they automatically received the award. That way they did not have to risk being chastised by their colleagues for an uncertain pay-off.
In that same email, Sandefer wrote that other changes made to the evaluation-based rewards, which were cut from an initial $10,000 to $1,500 at the system's flagship campus in College Station, seemed "intentional and devious" and offered methods to "smoke out who was being genuine and who was being disingenuous." The latter are referred to as "Imposters," a reference to Imposters in the Temple, a seminal book on the need for reform in higher education by Martin Anderson, an adviser to former presidents Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan.
"The Imposters think the Regents are clowns, and that they can say one thing and just blow this past them," Sandefer wrote to his father, encouraging the elder Sandefer to share his thoughts. Sandefer's father did just that, sending a message to regent and TPPF board member Phil Adams.
Jeff Sandefer declined a request by the Tribune to comment on McKinney's departure.