At the end of a turbulent week in Texas higher education, the circumstances of the chancellors of the state’s two largest university systems stand in stark contrast.
On Tuesday, Mike McKinney, chancellor of the Texas A&M University System, abruptly announced his retirement, effective July 1. According to multiple higher education sources, it was a move quietly encouraged by members of the board of regents.
Two days later, the University of Texas System Board of Regents expressed unanimous support for Chancellor Francisco G. Cigarroa after a highly anticipated speech outlining his vision for advancing excellence throughout the system.
Interest in the actions of the university system regents has reached an unusual level, among the public and in the halls of the Texas Capitol, as distrust and acrimony have spread through the higher education community in recent months. And it seems that neither board’s actions this week are likely to lessen that scrutiny.
The actions of both governing boards are tied, at least in part, to a debate over seven so-called breakthrough solutions for higher education. Since 2008, Gov. Rick Perry and the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative study group, have encouraged regents to put into effect the changes, which were developed by Jeff Sandefer, a businessman and foundation board member.
Supporters of the measures, which include separating research and teaching budgets and providing professors large cash rewards based solely on student evaluations, maintain that they will deliver better educational results more efficiently. But the measures have generated a significant backlash among the academic communities at the state’s flagship public universities, Texas A&M and the University of Texas at Austin.
In emails to regents of the A&M system, where the most progress was made in putting the measures into effect, Sandefer and his father, the oilman J.D. Sandefer, who is known as Jakie, repeatedly expressed frustration with the chancellor’s methods of implementation. The emails were obtained through open records requests. The younger Sandefer noted at one point that McKinney’s approach was “WAY overcomplicated” and, later, that he had made “a serious error.”
The University of Texas System has been more reluctant to implement the proposed measures, and the pressure to do so was, until recently, largely under the radar. In February, Perry appointed new regents and a new chairman, Gene Powell, who were perceived as sympathetic to the measures.
The flashpoint that inspired a barrage of angry letters and emails from Texas students, faculty members and alumni was Powell’s hiring of a special adviser with ties to Sandefer and the conservative policy group, and the creation of two task forces to focus on university excellence and blended and online learning. Despite Powell’s insistence to the contrary, some perceived the moves as an effort to cut out Cigarroa and other high-level administrators.
On Thursday, Powell told the room at an uncharacteristically crowded regents meeting that it was decided nearly a month ago that there was a need for the chancellor to lay out a framework for how he planned to guide the system. The vision Cigarroa then offered — based on the four principles of opportunity, economic prosperity, quality of life and stewardship — directly conflicted with some of the “breakthrough solutions,” though it embraced the goals if not the specifics of others.
The University of Texas System has a legacy of not settling for mediocrity, he said, and the people of Texas look to it for excellence. He told the room that, before the people’s trust can be maintained, “We must first trust each other.”
Cigarroa also cautioned regents not to become overly involved in the day-to-day operations of individual institutions. “Our universities cannot be micromanaged,” he said. “I trust our presidents, and I will hold them and I will hold myself accountable.”
The remarks received a standing ovation from the room and a vote of support from the regents. Alex Cranberg, a recently appointed regent, said he approved of the chancellor’s message, but warned against confusing prestige with achievements like advances in knowledge and student outcomes. Afterward, Cranberg wrote in an email, “The chancellor’s message reinforced the important reforms that this board must push forward to advance excellence at the University of Texas.”
Bill Powers, president of the University of Texas at Austin, who delivered his own speech on Monday laying out a vision for his institution, said that the vote “was a very positive development.” He said, “It included a commitment to excellence on our campus and emphasized a commitment to efficiency, accountability and accessibility, with which I strongly agree.”
Steve Hicks, who has served as a regent for two years, said the board’s vote was the most important of his tenure. “Now is the time to get fully behind the chancellor and not micromanage his affairs,” Hicks said. The unanimous outcome was not predetermined, he said, although he was pleased with it. “It’s a start to the healing,” he said.
Others agreed with the sentiment. Though, University of Texas student body president, Natalie Butler, said the chancellor’s remarks could be interpreted in different ways. As for whether the board has regained her confidence and that of her fellow students, she said, “The question is still open.”
One question that Powell — who said he believes the debate has been productive and hopes discussion continues — hopes has been laid to rest is that the jobs of Cigarroa or Powers might be at risk.
“There’s rumors out there that somebody’s getting ready to be fired,” Powell said in an interview. “That has not been discussed at all about either gentleman.”
“I thought it was important for us to show that we care about them, we care about the job they’re doing, and we fully support them,” he said.
Meanwhile, at A&M, Ray Bowen, an alum who has actively pushed back against the proposals made by the Texas Public Policy Foundation, said it was too early to determine what McKinney’s departure would mean for the system’s future.
He said, “Our regents at this point seem pretty much impervious from alumni pressure.”
McKinney and Richard Box, chairman of the A&M Board of Regents, declined to comment for this article.
Bowen said he was interested in seeing what the effect of legislative pressure might be. Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and Texas House Speaker Joe Straus, Republican of San Antonio, issued a proclamation creating a joint oversight committee on higher education governance, excellence and transparency that will extend beyond the fast-approaching close of the regular legislative session.
State Rep. Eric Johnson, D-Dallas, the lone freshman legislator on the 12-person committee, said in a statement, “In order for quality higher education to be accessible and affordable for Texas families, it’s critical that the governing boards of our colleges and universities be held accountable for the policies they implement.”
Editor's note: This story has been corrected to reflect that Ray Bowen is not one of 22 distinguished alumni who recently wrote a letter to the A&M regents opposing the TPPF proposals.