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Phil Adams: The TT Interview

The new Texas A&M University System chairman on the governor's role in higher education, the Texas Public Policy Foundation, massive open online courses and the redevelopment of Kyle Field.

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On May 1, the Texas A&M University System Board of Regents elected longtime board member Phil Adams as its new chairman. Adams owns and serves as the president of Phil Adams Company, which provides insurance products and services.

First appointed to the board by Gov. Rick Perry in 2001, Adams is currently in the latter half of his second six-year term. In that time, he has witnessed the influence of technology in the rapidly evolving higher education landscape. He has also been around for some great accomplishments and some significant controversies at the system.

This legislative session, the A&M board managed to skate through largely unscathed while its counterpart at the University of Texas System endured significant criticism from lawmakers for its governance style.

But it hasn’t always been so easy. Prior to the previous session, the A&M board raised some eyebrows for appearing to pursue the “seven breakthrough solutions,” a set of controversial reform proposals released by the Texas Public Policy Foundation, an Austin-based conservative think tank.

Adams knows a thing or two about the TPPF: He was one of its earliest board members and continued to serve while sitting on the A&M board. At a recent legislative hearing, Brenda Pejovich, a UT System regent and TPPF board member, was asked if it was appropriate to serve on both, given the TPPF’s involvement in higher education policy.

In a telephone interview conducted in mid-May, Adams talked with The Texas Tribune about his plans for the board, the governor’s involvement in higher education, the TPPF and the rise of massive open online courses — free online courses that are open to anybody.

A condensed and edited version of the conversation follows.

TT: As chairman, what are your priority initiatives for the Texas A&M University System?

Adams: Other than our standing governance commitment toward policy and oversight, I want us to continue our tone toward being more transparent and, hopefully, more efficient and more productive.

We’ve got 11 universities, a handful of state agencies, a health science center. We’ve got a lot of operating units reporting into our chancellor that the regents are charged to oversee.

So I think that’s our big focus, to set the tone in that regard and make certain our mission is being accomplished. Our mission, of course, is teaching, research and service. That’s our aim.

TT: You’ve been on the board for some tumultuous times and smooth times. How are things now, and what is the chairman’s role in making sure things don’t get out of hand?

Adams: I think we have the wind to our back right now. But let me say, for the last few years, our board has had a very strong commitment to higher public education in the sense that we want to make certain that we remain sustainable.

I know the governor has taken a lot of criticism and regents have taken a lot of criticism for — for lack of a better word — a push toward reform, or a push toward greater transparency, greater efficiency, greater productivity, greater all of the above. I think foremost in our minds, it’s been very, very important for us to set the table toward sustainability.

We look at government operations at all levels. The federal government is unsustainable on its current path, as are almost all the state governments, cities, counties and university systems.

You see what we’ve done for 20 years. It’s raise tuition, raise fees, raise tuition, raise tuition, raise fees. That’s not the answer. We can’t do that.

Technology is changing the game. A word I read a lot and see a lot is “disruption.”

These MOOCs, these massive open online courses, they may not change dramatically the way we do things at A&M, or they may. But one thing they are going to do for certain is they are going to change the pricing — and I know that’s a business word that might make some people uncomfortable.

But technology is changing the game, so it’s incumbent upon us as a board to make sure we have the leadership in place with the mindset in place that we’ve got to remain sustainable. We’ve got to keep our institutions healthy and growing and productive. So we’ve got to keep a mind to harnessing this technology and working on our strengths.

TT: So should we expect A&M to announce some MOOCs in the near future?

Adams: I would expect it. I heard our vice chancellor for academic affairs, a man named James Hallmark, mention recently that all the system schools were in deep deliberations with one of the companies.

I wish I knew more, but I think the answer is yes. In fact, I said a moment ago that we’ve got to set the tone — so yes, we should be and we will be providing some.

TT: How much are the “seven breakthrough solutions” still in play?

Adams: To me, all that is sort of a mystery. I remember those seven solutions. Frankly, I agreed strongly. It was something like recognize and reward good teaching, recognize and reward good research. We’re all for that. 

I remember there were two of them that the regents or the man on the street couldn’t effect because they took legislative action. I don’t remember what the big blow-up was, except the academy didn’t want it.

I think it was rolled out very awkwardly and wrongly and maybe not with the right people at the table or the right input. I don’t know what to say about that, but I feel very, very strongly that the governor and the regents at A&M got the black hat put on them. 

I think there was a lot of misunderstanding, because a lot of the things I’d read in the papers — that the governor was against research and the regents were going to ruin the university — just weren’t true. The governor of Texas is so committed to research at our great universities, and we’ve never had any kind of a talk or any inclination of anything other than that.

We’ve definitely moved forward and, thank goodness, that’s not in discussion around here. Things are great here, and we’re highly highly committed to teaching and research. It’s our lifeblood. Thank God we’ve got such great faculty here at A&M and our other universities. We feel good about who we are and what we’re doing.

TT:  How much does the governor really run things?

Adams: I don’t know what the perception is out there, but I don’t hear from him much. I’m the chairman, and I’ve only talked to him one time in the last couple of months. He’s not running Texas A&M or any of our system schools.

He cares deeply. He appoints people to our board that were in public school — I don’t think there’s a thing wrong if you went to the best private school in the world — but we’re all a bunch of public school kids who went to public universities.

What I’m trying to say is that at my board table are folks who have an enormous commitment to higher public education. That’s how Rick Perry speaks the loudest on our board. 

I know this sounds like a political answer, but he’s not running things. Though, he’s put his stamp on it. He’s very committed to public education and public higher education, and I think it shows in his appointments.

In spite of what’s been written and read, he’s been right on about our need to get our pencils sharper and figure out a way to address tuition. He was ahead of the curve on how this technology would revolutionize the academy.

TT:  University of Texas System Regent Brenda Pejovich was recently questioned by a legislator as to whether her service on the Texas Public Policy Foundation board was appropriate. Don’t you have involvement with the TPPF board?

Adams: I do, and I’m very proud of the work the Texas Public Policy Foundation does. It’s an outstanding policy organization.

I was on the founding board nearly 25 years ago. It was about the same things we’re about today. It was about commitment and our principals of limited government, free enterprise, individual responsibility — hallmark values that really affected our public policy positions. I felt very good about the work we were doing and continue to do.

But I’ve got to say, I got on the board 20 years before anything was said about education. I have a hard time figuring out the big fuss when almost 100 percent of the big policy institutions in the country that have dug into higher ed are saying very similar things.

So I think they’re proving to be right about the need to look at things. 

And I think we’re doing that at A&M. I think we’ve got great things going and are positioning ourselves to remain sustainable and to keep college affordable.

It’s an awesome responsibility, when you think about the tens of millions of Texas children that are going to be coming down the line in the next 20 or 30 or 40 or 50 years. We need to be able to provide them with an opportunity. We need to be able to do that, and it needs to be affordable.

We’ve got an eye to the future. And the employers, by the way, seem to like our graduates.

TT: In the same meeting where you were elected chairman, the board committed to the redevelopment of Texas A&M University's Kyle Field. For $450 million, the new stadium will hold 102,500 people. What are your thoughts on that investment?

Adams: We’re really excited about Kyle Field. It’s a really sizable investment. The funding and financing is coming from several sources, obviously a lot of private donations and buying of luxury suites. Of course there is a debt piece, but we’ve got it put together where it’s going to work very well.

And it’s about more than our charmed season we had last year and having a Heisman Trophy winner. It’s about more than that. In many ways, this will be a big megaphone with which we speak to the nation.

Now we’re in the SEC and playing on a bigger stage. This redeveloped, bigger Kyle Field will be a platform for us to share Texas A&M and our traditions and our values with the whole nation. We’ll be able to amplify the 12th Man.

We hope it will help us get more people from around the country — and more Texans even.

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