Analysis: Texas Tech’s regents ran off one of the rare good guys in politics

Outgoing Texas Tech University Chancellor Robert Duncan's career as a public servant was straight out of a Frank Capra movie, or a civics textbook. The university's regents forced him out anyway.

Former state Sen. Robert Duncan, R-Lubbock, shown in 2011, took the reins as chancellor of the Texas Tech University System in 2014. Marjorie Kamys Cotera

*Correction appended.

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Maybe nice guys do finish last.

Robert Duncan, who suddenly decided this week to retire from his powerful and well-compensated job at the top of the Texas Tech University System, has had the kind of career and reputation a citizen might hope for in a public servant.

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He has been solid gold the whole way: As a legislative staffer, a lawyer working for state Sen. John Montford, D-Lubbock; as a member of the Texas House and then a state senator; and finally, as the chancellor.

No scandals. No meaningful enemies (until now, anyway). His has been a stellar career. It’s what the optimists hope for and what the pessimists bet against. He’s straight out of a Frank Capra movie, or a civics textbook. Imagine a guy walking through a spaghetti factory in a white suit and leaving without a spot on him. Duncan is really something.

Which is why it’s a shame that the rest of the crabs pulled him back into the bucket. The regents at Texas Tech showed their mettle — demonstrating why they’re little fish and not big fish — when a more brazen academic institution bellowed about their plans to launch a veterinary school in the Panhandle. Texas A&M University, headed by former legislator, railroad commissioner and comptroller John Sharp, believes one vet school is enough.

That was communicated to the Tech regents, who quailed. They dumped Duncan, who offered his resignation after an informal vote of no confidence and gave less notice than a produce manager at a grocery store. One version of this tale — denied vociferously by Gov. Greg Abbott’s office — is that the governor told the regents to yank Duncan’s leash. It’s hard to believe the regents – who are appointed by the governor – are independent enough to have done it on their own. And there wasn’t any foreshadowing — no steady building up of grievances against Duncan or anything like that.

Think of how regents handle big-time coaches. It starts with irrational exuberance, which buys a new coach a few years. After that, it’s easy to tell what’s going on. There’s a win-loss record. The performance of the student athletes, on and off the field. The police reports, or the lack of them. By the time a coach leaves town, it’s either in a figurative hearse or in an actual parade.

The hearse is more common.

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And unless government prosecutors have to get involved, it’s hardly ever a surprise. Watch how the team does or how the players behave and you’ll quickly understand why regents and others are throwing money or bricks at the coach.

That’s not the case here. Tech’s regents surprised everyone when they pushed Duncan out. They presented no bill of particulars. The vet school has been the only real and visible controversy — unless, say, you’re a Mike Leach fan and think that particular fired coach ought to be lured back to Lubbock to rescue the football team. The school isn’t embroiled in scandal. The vet school got the money it needed by raising it from donors — a program led by Duncan.

It’s kind of a mystery.

It’s had a backlash, too. In Lubbock and among the wider network of Tech grads in Texas and beyond, Duncan’s ejection was seen as all about that veterinary school, a notion that didn’t sit well. Their unhappiness prompted the regents to hedge, issuing a press release expressing their desire to proceed with the vet school. They still haven’t said what their problem with Duncan was — why they forced him out — but they are running away from the widely suspected motive.

The sneaks in politics have a way of winning over the nice guys. And it would take a major change of scenery in the regents’ room to talk Duncan into coming back if anybody wanted to do that.

In the end, though, he might get one thing he was trying to get for one of the state’s largest university systems: If the regents are good to their word, there’s going to be a new veterinary school in Amarillo.

Maybe they’ll name it for Robert Duncan.

Disclosure: The Texas Tech University System and the Texas A&M University System 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.

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An earlier version of this story said John Sharp was a former land commissioner; he was a railroad commissioner.