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Legislator, A&M chancellor spar over nixed campus merger talks

Texas A&M University System Chancellor John Sharp and state Rep. J.M. Lozano exchanged criticism Wednesday over a quashed proposal to merge Texas A&M-Kingsville and Texas A&M-Corpus Christi.

State Rep. J.M. Lozano, R-Kingsville, and Texas A&M University System Chancellor John Sharp.

Editor's note: This story has been updated throughout.

Texas A&M University System Chancellor John Sharp said Wednesday that the idea of merging system universities in Kingsville and Corpus Christi is no longer feasible, so he doesn't plan to ask the system's board of regents to vote on the idea in the coming weeks. 

But that decision didn’t immediately defuse tension around the idea, as a spat between Sharp and a Kingsville legislator over the issue simultaneously spilled out into the public. 

The legislator, Republican state Rep. J.M. Lozano, questioned to The Texas Tribune on Wednesday whether Sharp should be allowed to continue to keep his job given how he has handled the proposed merger, which has sparked outrage across the Coastal Bend community. 

“This may be a manner that is going to become a personnel matter because it's a character issue now,” Lozano said. 

He quickly added, “Lie after lie. And that is part of the Aggie code — that you don't lie."

For his part, Sharp said he has been completely open with lawmakers and Coastal Bend residents about the proposal. He stressed that he has always said that the idea shouldn’t move forward if there were community opposition. The fact that he is quashing it now shows that he is keeping that promise.  

"I don't think it is viable right now," he said. "I think it should be, and I think it is something that should happen. But I have said from the beginning that if we can't convince the community, it isn't going to happen."

The idea of a merger became public this month, but it has been in the works for weeks. It was first discussed publicly at an A&M System Board of Regents meeting last Thursday. At that time, regents were somewhat split but open to the idea. 

Sharp said Wednesday that he still thinks he has the votes on the board to move forward, but with all the opposition, there is “no sense putting it in their face.”

Regardless, Sharp said merging Texas A&M University–Corpus Christi and Texas A&M University–Kingsville is still a good idea. With 23,000 combined students, it would create the dominant school in the South Texas region, he said. 

But the proposal prompted anger in the Coastal Bend area as soon as it became public. Anti-merger groups popped up on social media, and scores of students e-mailed regents to express their opposition. Fear was further stoked when notes from an Oct. 5 meeting between Sharp and community leaders were leaked. 

The notes, which A&M System officials disputed as inaccurate and incomplete, included statements by participants that A&M-Kingsville President Steven Tallant would take over as president of the new university. During the meeting, Tallant said the new university’s engineering program should eventually be located in Corpus Christi. Kingsville alumni soon raised alarm about the engineering program leaving the campus, while Corpus Christi residents worried about being viewed as a satellite campus if administrators were based in Kingsville.

War of words

Lozano said community sentiment has been overwhelmingly opposed to the idea from the start. He said he first learned about the merger proposal in September in a meeting with Tallant, who told him that “John Sharp is going to merge A&M-Corpus and A&M-Kingsville.”

He said he immediately registered his opposition, saying that any merger would have to be authorized by the Legislature. 

“I am still shocked at the methods that one person has taken upon himself when there is a process in place for this,” Lozano said.

He added, “I don’t know what his end game is and why he is rushing it.”

On Tuesday, Lozano e-mailed A&M System regents, saying that Sharp didn’t seem to respect Lozano’s role as a legislator. 

“Perhaps, it is my age, since I am 36. I may have appeared naïve to him,” he wrote. “Perhaps it is my sometimes audible accent, being born in Mexico. However, I cannot allow him or anybody else to usurp or disregard my legislative role.”

Lozano said in an interview that he believes Sharp was trying to push the merger quickly so that the board of regents wouldn’t get wind of how much the Coastal Bend community would be opposed to the idea — something that is reflected in the leaked notes. 

“The issue now is I want an explanation and an apology to the people of Kingsville and Corpus Christi for there not being transparency,” Lozano said. “And I want the regents to investigate why this has happened to make sure that no future chancellor does this.”

Lozano also wrote that he worried about people in Kingsville and Corpus Christi facing “reprisals” for opposing the merger.  

Sharp disputed Lozano’s comments, saying that a lot of misinformation has been spread about the process. He had scheduled a public forum in the area for Monday and said he still plans to show up and explain how the process has been handled. 

"There has been some pretty sleazy maneuverings around this," he said. "I am going to go down there and talk to them about it."

Sharp said he has been transparent all along. When he met with community leaders on Oct. 5, he told them that the idea would be killed if any local legislators opposed it. Sharp also claimed that Lozano said he supported the idea as long as the engineering program at Kingsville was preserved. The leaked meeting notes say the same thing, along with Lozano saying he wanted “total transparency with the process.”

“All of this hullabaloo would have ended if J.M. Lozano would have stood up and said, ‘I am against it.’ But he didn’t say that. He said he was for it,” Sharp said.

“Don’t start jumping on me when you are the guy who didn’t have the guts to do what you should have done.”

In a response to Lozano’s letter to regents, Sharp wrote to the lawmaker, “My entire life is dedicated to one entity, The Texas A&M University System and the betterment of its students. It is ridiculous to suggest that anyone, including myself, would hold anything against someone for having an opposing opinion.”

Other lawmakers in the Coastal Bend area haven’t returned calls seeking comment on the issue. But after last week’s meeting, the Corpus Christi delegation in the Legislature — Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen, Rep. Abel Herrero, D-Robstown, and Rep. Todd Hunter, R-Corpus Christi — released a statement saying that the community should comprehensively discuss and review the idea. They also said they had no plans to file legislation authorizing the merger.

“We will not support any legislation or proposal that would adversely affect or be harmful or detrimental to Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi or the Corpus Christi community,” the statement said.

Disclosure: The Texas A&M University System and Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

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