Earlier this month, the Texas A&M University System's board of regents approved the establishment of the cryptically named Area 41 Institute.
Its creation had been foretold by Tommy Williams, a former state senator who now serves as the system’s vice chancellor for federal and state relations. “The chancellor and our board has a vision that we should have a think tank dedicated to solving the problems the state faces over the next decades,” Williams let slip during a Texas Department of Transportation meeting in July.
A&M System officials were tight-lipped about the plan at the time, but following its approval by the regents, Billy Hamilton, the system’s executive vice chancellor and chief financial officer, has provided more details.
The institute will track the activities of researchers and thinkers across the A&M System and try to pull them together to tackle some of the state’s mounting problems — challenges that require the sort of long-range planning that Hamilton said is difficult in the legislative environment.
“Although there are other ‘think tanks’ dedicated to public policy and to the future,” the proposal submitted to the regents asserted, “this effort will be unique among American public universities and uniquely ties to the A&M System’s land-grant mission.”
According to the proposal, the areas of interest for the institute include transportation, water, energy and health care — and how those policy issues intersect.
“Maybe I’m misreading the people of Texas, but I think people want some things to be resolved," Hamilton said. "They don’t want to think West Texas is going to dry up and blow away in the next 50 years. And we believe the university system has enormous resources that are basically as untapped as the shale under Texas.”
The new institute, whose operations are already underway, comes by its name in two ways. A&M Riverside — a set of testing facilities 10 miles from the flagship where much of the institute’s research is expected to occur — is a former Air Force base that looks a bit like Area 51 when viewed from the air. Plus, the A&M system has a cozy relationship with George H.W. Bush, the 41st president, whose presidential library is located at A&M.
The origins of the institute can be traced back two decades to when Hamilton was working in the office of then-Comptroller John Sharp, who now serves as the chancellor of the A&M System. In 1994, that office published a report called “Forces of Change: Shaping the Future of Texas,” a study that detailed policy concerns stretching out to 2025.
Hamilton said similar projects were derailed when Sharp lost his 1998 bid for lieutenant governor to Rick Perry, an A&M alumnus who is now the state's longest-serving governor.
“After that, we were mostly tax accountants and economists. We could only push our ideas so far,” he said.
Now, Hamilton and Sharp have one of the state’s largest university systems — and the only one that includes state agencies, such as the Texas A&M Transportation Institute and the Texas A&M Forest Service — at their disposal.
“We’re past the time when we need to think long-term in the state,” Hamilton said. “There’s a real need for someone to say, ‘Look, there’s a treasure trove in our public universities that the public is paying for. How can we mine that for the benefit of the state?’”
The A&M System has set aside $1 million for the institute’s initial funding. Officials hope to secure at least an additional $3 million from contracts with state agencies, such as TxDOT. Additionally, they will seek a special appropriation from the Legislature in the coming session. They ultimately hope to be self-sustaining to the point that such appropriations will not be necessary.
The Area 41 Institute will be housed under Jon Mogford, the system’s vice chancellor for research, who said he hopes that the work it produces will also attract national interest and funding. “I think Texas is a great surrogate for the nation, and even the global perspective,” he said.
Hamilton said he would be disappointed if the institute had not published a substantive, forward-looking report and established itself as a trusted source for lawmakers looking to tackle critical policy matters by the 2017 legislative session. He insisted that the institute would be solutions-based, but not try to set policy or advocate for one side of an issue.
As for the institute's moniker, he said, “we played with a lot of different names and a lot of different ways to convey what we were trying to do.”
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