The longtime Democratic officeholder — he also previously served as a railroad commissioner and as a member of the Texas House and Senate — will take the helm from Gov. Rick Perry's chief of staff, Jay Kimbrough, who has been serving as interim chancellor following the departure of former chancellor Mike McKinney (also a former Perry chief of staff).
From the outside, it appears to be a volatile time to be joining the system, which has been at the center of an ongoing controversy about the future of higher education in Texas. Much of the discussion has centered on a set of "seven breakthrough solutions" for higher ed fashioned by Austin businessman Jeff Sandefer and promoted by Perry. They have since walked some of the policies back, but of all the university systems, A&M took the most proactive approach to the seven, drawing the ire of some in the established higher ed community.
The system's flagship institution, Texas A&M University, is also considering and preparing for a significant transition as it positions itself to potentially leave the Big 12 Conference, possibly for the Southeastern Conference.
Statewide, public higher education is facing significant pressure as enrollment soars and state funding shrinks. Perry has called for universities to boost efficiencies and has challenged them to develop a $10,000 bachelor's degree. As he takes this issue national with his presidential campaign, more and more eyes — many of them belonging to students worried about mounting debt — are focused on Texas' institutions.
Sharp talked with the Tribune about these issues and more. An edited transcript follows, along with full audio.
TT: How did you end up in this position?
Sharp: Well, I applied for it in June or whenever the deadline was. My wife and I talked about it, and the kids talked about it some.
I just think that’s the best place. Higher education is what the future of Texas going to be about. You do it bad, you’re going to have a bad future. You do it good, you’re going to have a good future. You do it great, you’re going to have a great future.
I think there’s tons of potential, particularly in the flagships, in Texas. I just came to the conclusion that I thought that’s where I could best get back into public service. I’ve missed it ever since I left public service. I think this is a good place to start.
Audio: John Sharp
I know that the only difference between me and the kids I went to high school with is the education I got at Texas A&M. I know I wouldn’t have had anywhere near the career or the opportunities I have had had it not been for the two degrees I got at A&M — one a BA and another in the Corps of Cadets in leadership. Those two things, that school, has given me everything I got.
I hope I know enough about the Legislature, how decisions ought to be made with regard to institutions like that. But I’m also very much aware that I will go on campus as the most ignorant guy in the room and hopefully after six months I will know more than anybody else does. The way I’m going to get there is asking people.
One of the things I learned while I was comptroller. We had these things called Performance Reviews. We came up with all kinds of ideas. It wasn’t my idea. I got it from a young guy that worked in the Department of Human Services. All of those ideas — thousands of ideas — that we came up with that worked well, saved money and all this kind of stuff. What we did was we assumed that we knew less about it than the folks that were doing the job. We sent all the people that we had that were working on that to talk to all the employees. We ran a hotline that was anonymous and all kinds of stuff.
When you do that, you will find the folks that are doing the everyday job — and my guess is it’s the same in higher education, just like it’s true in agencies of state government — the folks that are doing the teaching, research, grounds keeping, food service and everything else know a whole lot more about how to do that than anybody in the chancellor’s office and the president’s office. And you have to ask them. If you have a problem, you go to them and ask them. You get them in a room or you do it privately, and just say, “What do we need to do?”
If you perceive that you have a problem in one area or another, if you spend a whole lot of time sitting down talking to the folks that do the work at A&M, you’re going to get a whole lot more solutions than if you think you’re smart enough to dream it up from the top and say, “My way or the highway.” That never worked for me in state government, and I suspect it doesn’t work in any organization like that.
TT: Have you been following the current controversy in higher ed? How familiar are you with the “seven breakthrough solutions,” and what do you think of them?
Sharp: When the controversy first came up, I read them. I talked to Jeff Sandefer and folks like that. I congratulate anybody that has good ideas, that has good intentions in bringing those ideas forward. But the only way that kind of thing works is it’s got to come, in my opinion, from within. You’ve got to ask people, "What do you think about it?" and stuff like that. There may well be very good ideas in there that the University of Texas, Texas Tech or A&M would like to do. But when you pose it as a top-down deal and say “This is it,” you create so much resistance that nobody looks at them anymore.
What are the core functions of a university? What is it there for? It’s there for teaching and for research? In my humble opinion, you don’t go there to get your savings first. If you want savings and to be efficient — and I am all about that, and we’re certainly going to do reviews of every aspect of the system beginning with the chancellor’s office — the first thing you do is not look for savings in what your core function is.
If you’re the comptroller of public accounts, the first thing you do is not go in and say, “Okay, let’s see how we can get rid of some auditors and make them more efficient.” They’re the whole reason the agency is there, because they collect taxes.
The first place you start is those things that support that core function. The things that support the core function are everything from utilities to grounds maintenance, to food preparation, to all the things like that — from the chancellor’s office, the president's office, public relations, everything is there to serve those two things.
Keep in mind, I’m a neophyte. I’ve heard the politics inside of higher education are 10 times worse than the politics inside that pink building. I’m not there yet anyway. But you don’t start getting your efficiencies with what the university is about. You start with saving money on everything that supports that and putting that money into your core function, and then you look at your core function and see if there are ways to improve it.
It’s interesting — and I don’t think the board would mind me talking about this — I thought the first question I’d get in those interviews would be about that. I got no questions on that at all. I got lots of questions about efficiency and how would you do it and stuff like that, and I told them what my thoughts were: that we ought to take a fresh look at everything and involve everybody on all of the campuses at all the institutions.
We’ve found if you do it that way — don’t do a slash-and-burn type thing — you get everybody to buy into the system. 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 — at the comptroller’s office, for example — it is a fleeting victory. You’ve got to get everybody involved.
TT: What direction would you like to take the system in?
Sharp: I want the system to be, academically and research-wise, the best in the United States of America. It’s a lofty goal. We intend to look at best practices at every university we can get into and talk about those things: about recruiting Nobel laureates, about recruiting the very best faculty members — what you have to do to do that.
My disadvantage is that I assume there’s a whole lot of good work going on right now to do that, and so I want Texas A&M University System to be the best system in not just this state but the United States. That’s the goal we're setting. At the same time, we want to make sure our students are getting the best education at the lowest cost that we can provide them.
TT:What do you think they should do about this SEC conference realignment issue?
Sharp: I have to talk to you as an Aggie on that. I think it’s in the best interest of A&M and in the best interest of the state of Texas that A&M pursue the SEC as vigorously as they can. The reason I think that is, No. 1, we’ve got a lot of good things to export from the state of Texas, and it wouldn’t hurt the state of Texas to export those things to the East Coast and Florida and things like that.
No. 2, I think A&M would make more money. All legislators I know have been encouraging universities to do everything they possibly can to generate more income so they can use fewer tax revenues to do that. I believe certainly a move to the SEC would do that.
I haven’t talked to the board about it, so I’m giving you today my personal opinion. It has nothing to do with the Big 12, nothing to do with the University of Texas, Longhorn Network and all that. It’s simply, I think it’s good for the state of Texas to show our wares all across the United States, different television networks and things like that, publicity is not bad. A&M is going to make a lot of money in the process.
As a former student, I am enthusiastically for it. I await instructions from the board.
TT: How is your relationship with Gov. Rick Perry?
Sharp: Fine. 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. But we get along good. We were really good friends at A&M. There was a brief time around 1998 that we pretty much hated each other, but our relationship is very good.
TT: How would you characterize the job of the chancellor?
Sharp: I think the job of the chancellor is the CEO. I’m assuming that everyone in the system, other than the board of regents, works directly for me, but not in the traditional sense.
I’ve been in both business and government, and it operates differently. There are different incentives you have to have in place to make folks thrive in a business background as opposed to a public service background. They are very different. It’s different from being the head of a Fortune 500 company where you stand up one day and say, “This is it.” It’s harder work than that. You have to get to know the stakeholders very well, which I intend to start doing tomorrow, and establish a personal relationship with them so they can tell you things that maybe they wouldn’t tell you about.
A lot of it is about relationships and me working very hard to earn the respect and the trust of the people within the system from the presidents on down. But I will be very clear to them, including all the presidents, that they work for the chancellor. I want to hear their ideas. It’s not going to be authoritarian in that sense. It’s going to be very much, let’s figure everything out together, set a set of goals and figure out how we get there at one time.
TT: Does this necessitate a move to College Station?
Sharp: It does. You bet.
TT: Do you have any plans to run for office again at any point down the line?
Sharp: No. I think the people have decided that question. Twice.
TT: Do you anticipate any school in the Texas A&M System being able to offer a $10,000 bachelor’s degree in the near future?
Sharp: I probably don’t know enough about that to know. I don’t know if they’re talking about starting at a community college or what. We will try to become the most efficient system anywhere.
One of the things that I always have heard about A&M, and it’s true when I was there, is that freshmen get a lot of attention. We need to do more of that and make sure that we keep those kids there. We want our graduation rates to get higher. It’s not the easiest place in the world to get in, but we want those graduation rates to be higher and make it accessible to other folks.
One of the first things we’ll look at is space utilization and building utilization. We might be doing a marvelous job, but it doesn’t hurt to just have a clean, real thorough look at it like we did back when I was comptroller. We begin that process with my office, the chancellor’s office.
TT: How much turmoil do you think higher education is really in right now?
Sharp: I think there’s a lot less turmoil than people think. Turmoil is created by a lack of knowledge as to what’s going on, what somebody’s planning. I want to make sure that the folks that are concerned about it are able to get me anytime they want, able to talk anytime they want, and be a part of solutions and be a part of problem solving and stuff like that.
I don’t want to discourage anybody from coming up with ideas in good faith, including the “seven solutions” or anything else. I welcome any kind of ideas that anybody has. We’re going to look at anything anybody puts on the table, but we’re all going to look at it and we’re all going to be involved in it.
TT: Any challenges?
Sharp: I’m nervous about it, but I was nervous when I became comptroller. I was nervous when I became a state senator. But I’m really looking forward to it. It’s an institution that I love, that I have great respect for that has done everything for me in my life outside of my family. I look forward to trying to make it better than it was when I got there. I believe that system is the greatest institution in the state. We’re going to take it just as high as she’ll go.