Vet school and budgets loom over well-liked chancellor's hasty exit from Texas Tech

The surprise retirement of Robert Duncan from the Texas Tech University System has stirred lawmakers and renewed calls for a new veterinary school in West Texas.

Robert Duncan during a Joint Interim Committee on Higher Education Formula Funding hearing on Feb. 21, 2018. Marjorie Kamys Cotera for The Texas Tribune

Call it a political whodunit.

In a surprise Monday announcement, former state lawmaker Robert Duncan said he would step down from his current position as chancellor of the Texas Tech University System come Aug. 31. He didn't cite health reasons or give any explanation for his abrupt departure, other than that "at 65, it's time to retire, move on and begin to tackle new challenges." Just a month before, he'd told the news outlet A-J Media that he had no plans to leave the system, where he is well-liked and has held the top job for four years.

So what changed?

In the words of state Sen. Charles Perry, a Republican from Lubbock: "Unfortunately, this is the outcome when politics — at its worst — gets involved in a decision."

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"You can't put lipstick on a pig and call it anything different. It's still a pig. This was about a vet school. This was about power players at the state level," Perry said. "The Duncan that everybody knows and loves and respects would never intentionally discredit this institution, himself, his family, this community or Lubbock."

Widely respected, and known for working across the aisle as a legislator, Duncan has overseen Tech's efforts to build a new dental school in El Paso, and a veterinary school in Amarillo that would focus on training large-animal vets. The Amarillo initiative dates back to the 1980s, but got off to a sputtering start; it's been paused, restarted and has faced polarizing opposition from supporters of the state's only other vet school, at Texas A&M University.

The title of a June opinion article from John Sharp, the hard-charging chancellor of the A&M System and another former lawmaker, summarized the sentiment: "Texas doesn't need another veterinarian school," it said.

A&M officials say Tech's proposed vet school is redundant and, if built, would spread limited state resources too thin. But residents of West Texas and advocates of Tech's program say it would fill a need for vets that treat cattle and other livestock, not just "poodles" as they say A&M's school largely does.

The Legislature committed $4.1 million to Tech's program in 2017, and the school has raised some $90 million from the city of Amarillo and other donors. When the system's governing board met last week, some funding for the vet school was on the agenda, and approved.

Days later, Duncan said he would retire.

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Carl Isett, a former state lawmaker who succeeded Duncan in the House, said he was "surprised" by the announcement and saddened for the system. “He was extremely happy at Texas Tech," Isett said. "I know that."

"There's some explanation for all this," said state Rep. John Smithee, a Republican from Amarillo. "These things don't just happen without some reason."

Sources close to the Legislature and to Tech, who hold Duncan in high esteem, see the vet school as a key factor in his abrupt departure, and see political chicanery behind the move. Tech's vet school is vying not just for funds that could go to A&M, but for attention that could be trained on the system's proposed dental school, in El Paso, where the chairman of Tech's board is from.

"The timing is awfully suspect," said Perry, the state senator. "Unfortunately, this was the nemesis that brought down a really great person that was awesome in his job and gracious, and kind and humble and forward-thinking."

But then, the West Texas system's governing board reiterated Wednesday that they would move forward with their plans to open a vet school. And political players rumored to be pulling strings behind the scenes, from Gov. Greg Abbott to U.S. Energy Secretary Rick Perry — an A&M alumnus and former Texas governor — to Sharp, all denied they'd done so in statements to the Texas Tribune.

"Contrary to innuendo," said Mac Walker, an Abbott spokesperson, "the governor has been assured by the Board of Regents the veterinary school was not the reason for Chancellor Duncan’s departure." Regents are expected to request legislative appropriations to support the program, Walker said, and "the governor is grateful to Chancellor Duncan for his service to Texas Tech University and to the entire state of Texas, and he wishes him the best in his retirement."

A&M Chancellor Sharp "has never talked to, texted or emailed a Texas Tech regent about Bob Duncan or the vet school," said an A&M spokesperson. "He assumes they are a lost cause to his point of view."

"It’s hard to believe anyone would be so gullible to believe that he could have enough power to influence another Board, especially since he has never even met the vast majority of them," the spokesperson added. "If he had that kind of power, the Tech vet school would never have come up anyway."

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That's not to say the vet school didn't play a role. A source close to Tech, speaking on condition of anonymity, pointed to two other items that were discussed in last week's meetings, when the vet school was brought up.

First, Duncan has one year left on his contract to be chancellor and, in a closed-door meeting Thursday, more than half of the regents signaled that they did not wish to extend it in advance. (Contract extensions for Tech presidents and athletic coaches were discussed and approved around the same time.)

Also on the agenda was a proposed budget for the upcoming fiscal year — and it had an initial increase that, the source said, regents couldn't support. Since Duncan became chancellor, in 2014, the system administration's budget has grown from $20 million, to a high of $25.4 million in 2017, to $24.4 million this year — a net increase of more than 20 percent. In the decade prior, the budget grew from $17.6 million to $17.7 million, less than 1 percent.

Different than A&M and the University of Texas System, which are fed in part by the Permanent University Fund, the Tech System's administrative budget receives "transfers from components," meaning money sent from the campuses up, like a tax, for shared services. The source said the increases in the administrative budget — and increases in the "transfers" over time — had rankled some campus-level leaders, who wanted the funds for students and educational initiatives.

It wasn't just about the vet school, or a dental school, or individual relationships, the source said; there had been concern among regents and administrators for some time about system spending and its impact on students and affordability.

System officials and the source have stressed there was no misappropriation of funds and that Duncan's ethics are not in question. During Duncan’s tenure, the system's endowment grew to $1.3 billion, and he helped raise record philanthropic support.

Calls placed to Duncan were not returned; a System spokesperson said he was on a pre-planned vacation.

John Montford, another former state lawmaker who was chancellor of the Tech System from 1996 to 2001, said Duncan is a "fiscal conservative," and a "capable and honest individual with great integrity."

“If he found a penny on a sidewalk he would look to turn it into the nearest lost and found — that’s how honest he is. Any suggestion of financial shenanigans is baloney,” Montford said. "These chancellors jobs — having been one I guess I can say that with some sense of history — they are tough jobs. Sometimes boards and chancellors just don't see eye to eye and that's just a fact in life."

Montford said he spoke to Duncan after the chancellor decided to retire, and that he thought Duncan felt "he needed to make a decision," and parted with the regents on good terms. "I think Bob will be successful at whatever he does," he said. "He'd be a great candidate for any leadership role."

The need for a vet school in West Texas, one dedicated to treating large animals, was a cause Duncan was committed to, Montford added.

In the wake of Duncan's resignation, that program has received renewed attention from Tech officials and proponents of the vet school — who say they will press on with the plans, regardless of any change in chancellorship.

In a statement, the chair of Tech's board, L. Frederick “Rick” Francis said the vet school was one of the "initiatives we are pursuing" and that it would "further demonstrate the ability our institutions have to serve our state." A spokesperson for the System added that the board of regents “approved the strategic plans of the system universities,” and that these plans include support for programs like the dental and vet school, and a mental health institute — priorities that will be “reflected in the legislative appropriations requests.”

The president of Texas Tech University, Lawrence Schovanec, said Wednesday that "we appreciate the Board's continued commitment" to the program. (The vet school would be jointly operated by Texas Tech University, the system's flagship campus, and the System's health sciences center in Amarillo.)

"Sometimes these things can backfire," said Smithee, the Amarillo lawmaker. "Duncan was extremely popular among the legislators, both Democrats and Republicans," and one of the members who was more respected.

"The vet school is going to happen," Smithee added. "Those who are trying to oppose it at this point are simply on the wrong side of the future of Texas. The overwhelming evidence shows that there's a tremendous need."

Disclosure: The Texas Tech University System, the Texas A&M University System, Texas A&M University, the University of Texas System and Texas Tech University have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.