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The Business of Being a University Chancellor

Why do Texas colleges hire former lawmakers to run the show? It's because the key trait for a new chancellor is the ability to attract money, both from donors and from the Legislature.

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You’re a university regent. An empty front office means you and your fellow board members need a new chancellor, someone to run the business side so your president, an academician who has written 137 scholarly articles and four books, can concentrate on education.

Your operation burns through money and the new chief’s job will be to find more of it. If yours is a private school, that means the boss will be occupied with catering to affluent people — alumni, parents of students, and alumni parents of students. Oh, and people who’ll sponsor the kind of research or specialties featured at the institution, whether they or their children went to school there or not.

It’s a public institution? The biggest pot of money is the government’s, and your chancellor will need to cater to legislators and budget wonks who parcel out those funds and who have to choose, sometimes, between your school and five other public systems in the state.

The key trait for a new chancellor? The ability to attract money.

Four of the current chancellors of public university systems in Texas once held state office, as did three of their predecessors. The head of private Baylor University in Waco, Ken Starr, made his name as a lawyer who worked on high-profile public cases including the investigation and eventual impeachment of then-President Bill Clinton.

John Sharp, a Democrat who served in the Texas House and Senate, on its Railroad Commission and as its comptroller of public accounts, is the latest picture on this wall; he was named chancellor of the Texas A&M University System last month, succeeding Dr. Mike McKinney, a physician who served in the Texas House, as head of the Health and Human Services Commission, and as chief of staff to Gov. Rick Perry.

Lee Jackson, who served as Dallas County judge before becoming the chancellor at the University of North Texas System, was also in the Texas House. So was Brian McCall, chancellor at the Texas State University System, who succeeded another officeholder, former Garland Mayor and Texas Railroad Commissioner Charles Matthews. Kent Hance was in the Texas Legislature, Congress and on the Railroad Commission and ran unsuccessfully for U.S. Senate and for governor before founding a law firm in Austin. Now? He’s the chancellor of the Texas Tech University System, trying to raise the kind of money vacuumed up by his predecessor, district attorney-turned state senator-turned-chancellor John Montford.

The University of Houston hasn’t gone that route — this time. Former Lt. Gov. Bill Hobby Jr. did a stint there from 1995-97. And it’s not just the public institutions that go this route — though they’re more aggressive about it.

Montford is in some ways the model for this. A Marine Corps Captain who became the chief prosecutor in Lubbock County, he served as head of the budget-writing Finance Committee in the Texas Senate before taking the job at Tech. It certainly helped that he knew his way around a budget, but then there’s this: He raised $500 million for Tech in five years.

People noticed. He did fine, moving on to a successful career with AT&T and General Motors and serving several boards. Tech got new buildings, new respect, better programs and the admiring attention of regents at other schools who wanted to catapult their schools to financial stability.

The lesson here is simple: Want to head a public university system in Texas? Go to college, and get some advanced degrees, if not a doctorate. It won’t hurt to be a lawyer, but that’s not absolutely necessary. Hance and Starr are lawyers. McCall has a doctorate. Sharp and Jackson have master’s degrees.

Then, run for office.

When the Texas State University System went shopping for a new leader in 2010, it started with 40 applicants — only two of them from politics. Both made the short list, and McCall, with two decades in the House, rose to the top. “What we did was hire 20 years of relationships,” said Charles Amato, chairman of the board of regents. “With Brian, for the first time ever, our funding is on par with the other systems.”

Not everyone fits the pattern. The University of Texas, which thinks of itself as the most prestigious public university system in the state, is headed by a pediatric transplant surgeon, Dr. Francisco Cigarroa. Renu Khator, chancellor of the University of Houston System, is internationally known for her expertise in global environmental policy. She’s also presided over a boom in fundraising for UH.

But they’re the exceptions. Most schools hire campus presidents who’ve got academic chops. They’ll take care of the education part. The chancellor’s job? Minding the money.

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