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In College Station, Another Fight Over a President

The big shots at Texas A&M ought to be relaxing and enjoying this week's battles over UT-Austin's football coach and president, but they're stuck in a distracting political fight of their own.

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The big shots at Texas A&M University ought to be sitting back this week, relaxing and enjoying the battles over the football coach and the president of the University of Texas at Austin — their longtime rival and the school that has been upstaging A&M for most of its history.

Instead, they countered the contretemps at UT with one of their own, pitting their chancellor’s choice for an interim president against the governor’s choice. The regents will talk it over Saturday, but the squabble has already spilled into the news.

The Texas Coalition for Excellence in Higher Education — a group that began as an alumni-backed protective ring around UT's administration — is now weighing in on the A&M quarrel, issuing a statement calling for an “experienced, qualified and capable” interim president and all but telling Gov. Rick Perry to butt out.

“We share concerns raised by Texas A&M faculty and others about this process, and look to the board of regents to stem the tide of turmoil and controversy that has unfortunately characterized Texas A&M University over the last few years,” the Coalition statement said. “Our state’s public teaching and research institutions are public treasures whose leadership positions should go to strong, visionary and experienced individuals — not doled out as political favors.”

A&M's chancellor, John Sharp, called several regents this week seeking support for Mark Hussey, dean of Agriculture and Life Sciences and the system’s vice chancellor for agricultural agencies. Perry is pushing Guy Diedrich, a vice chancellor for strategic initiatives.

It’s the first public breach in years in a Perry-Sharp frenemies drama that goes back to their college years as Aggies four decades ago. They were pals then, friends during their years in the legislature and early time as statewide officials, rivals who came to political blows in the 1998 race for lieutenant governor — Perry won that by about 70,000 votes — and friends again after a chance meeting in an Austin gun shop seven years later.

Sharp, a former comptroller, helped the governor pass a politically hazardous tax bill. The kumbayas kept on coming until Perry tapped Sharp — through his appointed regents — as chancellor in 2011.

Now they’re apparently in a face-off, with those same regents stuck in the middle.

The regents will meet for Saturday to talk about what to do next. There's no special urgency. This isn’t a permanent decision, and the current occupant of the president’s office, R. Bowen Loftin, isn’t vacating it until after the first of the year. Loftin, by the way, is leaving to become chancellor of the University of Missouri. Before that job came up, he was planning to take a high-level teaching post at A&M. He was gone either way.

The competition stirred up the regents and the administration and, pretty quickly, the faculty at A&M. This is a tale as old as time, or at least as old as land grant colleges: Academics don’t take kindly to interference from politicians. R. Don Russell, a professor in the flagship’s Department of Electrical Engineering, circulated an email among the school’s “distinguished professors” endorsing Hussey and decrying efforts from outside (that would be the Capitol) to move someone else into the job.

“[T]he selection of the interim president, both the individual selected and the process used, will send a message across the nation,” he wrote. “The message may be that we are purely a political entity that cares little for scholarly tradition, credentials of our leaders, or quality. The message can be very different if Mark Hussey is named interim president.”

He didn’t mention Diedrich or anyone else in the letter, but he implored the other professors to call the regents they know and pressure them to back Hussey.

This all happened pretty quickly. Sharp, according to several people familiar with the issue, started calling regents this week. The Saturday meeting was planned after a few of those calls, including one to Tony Buzbee, a Houston trial lawyer and one of the newest regents, who said he urged the chancellor to convene a meeting to consider the matter instead of doing it informally by phone. He said Sharp had wanted to announce Hussey’s appointment after polling regents, who could then ratify the choice at a meeting in January. “My answer to that was a strong ‘no,’” Buzbee told the Tribune. 

“I don’t want to get in the habit of getting five votes and leaving everybody else out,” Buzbee said. He added that he doesn’t have a favorite candidate — it's just that he wants to consider the issue out in the open. “My point is a process point.”

Calls to several other regents went unreturned. Off the record, some people familiar with the matter said regents were told on behalf of the governor’s office to get in line behind Diedrich. Buzbee called that “over dramatic.”

“I don’t think there is a showdown between this group and that group,” he said. “I don’t think we have that at all.”

A spokeswoman for the governor, Lucy Nashed, emailed an anodyne statement on her boss’s behalf: “While the decision is ultimately up to the chancellor and board of regents, the governor believes Guy Diedrich is a qualified candidate with a vision for the future of Texas A&M.”

Things have been going very, very well for the Aggies. They’re ahead of UT on lists of the top research universities in the country. Their football fans have been thrilled for two seasons by Johnny Manziel. While there were public skirmishes between the political and academic folks before UT's current troubles, things have been quiet — publicly, at least — for a while now.

And they had the pleasure known to sibling rivals everywhere of watching — from ringside seats — UT’s administration clash with the governor, with third parties calling for sweeping higher education reforms, with legislators, and with an inexhaustible supply of the kind of sports fans who would be soccer hooligans on other parts of the planet.

That ought to be high entertainment, but they got distracted with their own fight.

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