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Analysis: College Resignations Raise a Political Question: Legacy or Change?

Job openings atop the state's big universities give regents and Rick Perry, the lame-duck governor who appointed them, a chance to extend his legacy or to set the stage for his successor.

Dr. Francisco Cigarroa, Gov. Rick Perry and UT Board Chairman Gene Powell celebrate the merger at UT-Pan American on July 16, 2013.

You can find people around the state who were hoping the noise of controversy at the University of Texas would stop sometime in January 2015, when Rick Perry passed the keys to the governor’s office to someone else, presumably Republican Greg Abbott or Democrat Wendy Davis.

This particular fantasia hinges on the hope that the current UT regents — Perry appointments all — would then behave as satellites of a new leader or, at least, as satellites independent of Perry.

If those regents were paying attention to a new governor instead of the current governor, maybe they would be less inclined to tamper with the University of Texas at Austin. A new regime would be in place to name new leaders for the UT System and for UT-Austin, when President Bill Powers leaves.

Scratch that.

Francisco Cigarroa announced Monday that he is leaving now, a year before Perry, and the regents will begin a search for a new chancellor to oversee what true believers like to call The University. Powers, the current chairman of the Association of American Universities, might well be in his valedictory year at UT. The chancellor who replaces Cigarroa, with the regents looking over his or her shoulder, will pick the next president whenever Powers leaves.

Instead of new state leaders picking new academic leaders, the new leaders will be working with a crew chosen by Perry and Perry’s appointees — and, perhaps, a continuation of the controversial policy debates in the state’s higher education that have so aggravated Longhorn Nation.

Cigarroa could not have done Perry a bigger favor.

The chancellor — a surgeon in real life — has been at the center of a political maelstrom, caught in some ways between a tradition-bound academic and alumni community and a state government trying to impose some efficiencies and some new ideas in higher education.

It probably doesn’t help that the man at the top is an Aggie and not a Longhorn, but Perry’s beloved Texas A&M faces some of the same pressures from Austin. The A&M regents are also picking a new president for their flagship, and recently named an interim president — Mark Hussey, A&M's dean of Agriculture and Life Sciences and the system’s vice chancellor for agricultural agencies — instead of going with the governor’s preference, Guy Diedrich. That’s still an open file, though, since the regents are now in a search for a permanent president.

There you go. The governor has a chance to extend his influence over the top two state-supported universities in Texas. John Sharp, the chancellor at Texas A&M and a sometimes friend, sometimes rival of the governor, is putting a new president in place there. But the governor already has the chancellor and the regents in place.

But there's more. Texas Tech is looking for a chancellor to replace Kent Hance, who announced his retirement from that post last year. Same thing: a Perry-appointed board of regents naming a chief executive for a major university system on the eve of a change in power.

At UT, both Cigarroa and Powers got their current jobs during Perry’s tenure as governor. Even without the recent tension between them and the regents, they’ve been in office about as long as people usually stick around in jobs like these and would probably be moving on sometime soon.

If you were a governor on the way out, you would probably want to name someone who would continue with your policies and politics when you’re gone. If you were a governor on the way in, you would probably want your predecessor to let you put your people in place as early in your new administration as possible.

After all, governors want to govern.

The regents will still be around, for a while, no matter who wins the race for governor this year. Three of them — Steven Hicks, Gene Powell and Robert Stillwell — reach the ends of their terms a year from now, but six of the nine will remain. Those staggered terms are designed to insulate the schools from abrupt political changes; a new governor’s appointees won’t make a majority until January 2017.

Chances are, that board would pick the same new chancellor a year from now — under a new governor — that it would pick today. You have to wonder, though, whether the state’s first new governor in 14 years would want to change direction, even a little bit.

Other folks — prospective chancellors and president — are trying to figure this out while the political candidates and the appointees are working on it. Those people have longer-term considerations than everyone else in the mix. The new academic leaders could still be on the job when the next governor and all of the current regents have moved on.

First, they have to navigate these political waters, starting with a fundamental obstacle: Which leader are they supposed to follow?

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