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Kent Hance: The TT Interview

The chancellor of the Texas Tech University system on the tier-one race, why the state should invest in higher education and former head football coach Mike Leach.

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It can be difficult at times for the Texas Tech University System, removed from the state’s media centers, to emerge from the shadows of the University of Texas System and Texas A&M University System, the state's largest.

Last year, when a heated higher-education reform debate engulfed the Capitol community, the Texas Tech system went largely unmentioned, despite its strong ties to some of the reformers and having taken steps to implement some of the controversial reforms.

Texas Tech Chancellor Kent Hance said he didn’t mind being overlooked in that instance. The media storm that has primarily followed him around centers on the termination of popular Texas Tech head football coach Mike Leach in 2009 because of allegations regarding his treatment of player Adam James, the son of former ESPN college football analyst and GOP Senate hopeful Craig James. Leach, now the head football coach at Washington State University, has not given up his efforts to sue the school for wrongful termination.

This year, Texas Tech University is getting attention because the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board has determined that it has met the state’s definition of a tier-one institution, pending a review by the state auditor.

Hance, a former congressman (and the only person to defeat George W. Bush in an election), recently celebrated his five-year anniversary as chancellor of the Texas Tech system, which includes Texas Tech University, Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center and Angelo State University.

He recently talked to the Tribune about issues facing his institutions and higher education in general.

The following is an edited transcript of that conversation.

TT: Texas Tech is at the front of the pack in the tier-one race. As chancellor, what is your role in that?

Hance: I think that’s true. One of the big roles that I’ve had was working on the legislation [that established the tier-one race in 2009] when it went through. Working with elected officials. The other thing is raising money and trying to get more federal and state and private research money.

The biggest thing that I’ve been able to do is raising money. When I came here in December of ’06, I started a campaign to raise a billion dollars. As of January, we were over $860 million. Every year I’ve been here, we’ve raised more than $100 million. It’s been good.

We had one year before I got here, in 2001, that they raised about $130 million. But last year, we raised $183 million.

TT: Does your background in politics help you?

Hance: I think it does. In politics, you get turned down so many times on things you ask for that it doesn’t hurt your feeling when someone says no. You just go on to the next one.

You understand the legislative process. You had to raise money in politics.

[University of North Texas System Chancellor] Lee Jackson is a former state representative. [Texas State University System Chancellor] Brian McCall is a former state representative. [Texas A&M University System Chancellor] John Sharp is a former state representative, state senator, railroad commission, comptroller. I’m a former congressman, state senator.

The only two out of the six systems, [University of Texas System Chancellor Francisco] Cigarroa’s never been an elected official, and neither has Renu [Khator, the chancellor of the University of Houston System]. But they’re both very good. We have a good group of chancellors, and I enjoy working with them.

TT: Do you work together?

Hance: Yes. We meet at least twice a year. We look at what we have in common.

TT: Do those of you with institutions in the tier-one race worry about overemphasizing research at the expense of teaching?

Hance: No, because we keep in mind that our first job is clinical education. Teaching. That’s our first job. I always say that to the faculty. That’s the first thing we’re supposed to do.

And any research should be on a project that you’re proud of. We do research on pulse power. How can we come up with a method that will stop IEDs  — roadside bombs — from killing so many of our troops? We’ve been doing research; we’re one of the leaders in the country on that. That’s great research, and we teach from that.

I think that all kinds of research is good. But if you’re doing research on Shakespeare’s 13th play, and there’s been 140 research papers written on it, I don’t know if that’s a priority with taxpayers’ taxes.

TT: Did you feel like you managed to fly under the radar during the heated higher-education debate last year?

Hance: I don’t know. I think people wanted to write about A&M and Texas. I don’t think they wanted to write about us. That’s okay with me.

TT: Do you feel ignored?

Hance: Not ignored. I think that sometimes they rush to think that everybody in the state cares primarily about the two big flagship schools, but we’re turning out a lot of people. We’ve got a lot of alums in Dallas, Fort Worth, Houston, San Antonio, Austin.

Sixty-two percent of the student body of Texas Tech comes from 280 miles or more. More students drive a further distance to go to Texas Tech than any other public university in the nation. We are a statewide university. We’re not a regional school.

We do national and international research. Do we have the money to spend that our main competitors at A&M and Texas do? No. They’ve got the Permanent University Fund, which is a godsend for them and is great for the state.

TT: One thing you definitely do get press for is the controversy surrounding Mike Leach. How long do you expect that issue to be around?

Hance: Oh, I don’t know. Mike broke his contract on Dec. 17, 2009. He broke it on the 19th, and then we tried to work with him. He was guilty of insubordination. He wouldn’t work with us.

Mike fired himself. When an employee tells you to go “F” yourself, you know, that’s not a good sign that he’s gonna work with you. And so the [Texas] Supreme Court ruled he’s not going to get any money. He’s been obsessed with this for a couple years now.

I think Mike’s a good coach. I hope that he moves on with his life. He’s got a job now. I just wish him the best, but we’ve moved on a long time ago.

TT: Speaking of moving on, if you look a few years into the future, what does the Texas Tech system look like?

Hance: I don’t know what the system will look like. You’ve got to look at the parts of the system.

We’ve got the health science center. It’s growing. There’s a chance that they will split up and have two health science centers, one in El Paso and one in Lubbock.

Texas Tech University’s growing. It’s doing well. They’re at almost 32,500 [undergraduate students] last fall. I think they’ll be above 33,000 this year. We’ve set a goal of going to 40,000 by 2020. I think we’ll achieve that.

Angelo State. When we first got involved and Texas Tech took over, they were at 5,800 or something like that. Now they’re over 7,000. Our goal for them is 10,000 by 2020. I think we’ll reach it.

Will we grow beyond that? I don’t know. On something like that, we’re going to do what the Legislature tells us to do.

What else do I envision for them? I envision doing more research — and getting students out faster.

I want to graduate students out as fast as possible because it’s cheaper for them and it’s better for us. We’ve been working on doing things the last few years to make it faster, to encourage students to get out, encourage them to move on. Every extra year they spend in school is money that they’ve wasted.

TT: But how do you get students out faster if, for example, they have to work part time?

Hance: That’s tough. That’s tough. You’ve got two sources of money for higher education: students and state. In every state, doesn’t matter whether it’s Democrats or Republicans, liberals or conservatives, the state funding percentage has gone down.

That means you’re going to have a dramatic increase in students. We’re going to have a very small increase this year. Not much at all.

In ’08, second year I was here, we had zero increase in tuition, fees, and room and board. I could not find another school in the nation that had zero on all four.

You’ve got to keep them honest. Sometimes they’ll say, “Well, we’re not increasing it.” But they’ll increase some areas 20 percent, and they’ll cut something else a little and try to say it balances out.

I think we have to be careful not to price ourselves out of the market. We’re public universities. We have a cross-section.

The great thing about Texas Tech, we’re a cross-section of America.

I had a kid my class, and we were talking about immigration one day. He came up afterwards and said, “Mr. Chancellor, I think my parents were the original illegal aliens."

I said, “Son, I don’t know your parents, but they’re not old enough.”

His parents came here from Mexico. His dad’s flipping burgers. His mother’s a dishwasher. This kid, he worked his way through. Didn’t borrow any money. Took him six years. Now he’s teaching American history.

The next time the class met, there was a kid sitting two down from him. He came up to talk to me after class and said, “My granddad says y’all are good friends.”

I said, “Who’s your granddad?”

He said, “James Baker.”

I said, “James Baker?”

He said, “James A. Baker.”

I said, “Secretary of treasury under Reagan? Secretary of state under Bush 41?”

He said, “That’s Granddad.”

I said, “I’m going to get Granddad to speak at graduation.” He spoke at the kid’s graduation. Baker had three kids here.

The reason I say this is important. In that one class, you had one student whose mother and dad were flipping burgers and washing dishes. And two down from him, you had another student whose granddad knows every leader in the world on a first-name basis.

They were getting the same great education. That’s the key to the future of success in the state of Texas.

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