UT System pick for chancellor is new to Texas, but not to the challenges he'll face here

James Milliken has dealt with declining state support, political skirmishes and the challenges of educating low-income students in his prior jobs in higher education.

James B. Milliken, newly-named sole finalist for chancellor of the University of Texas System, at City College of New York's commencement ceremony with then-First Lady Michelle Obama and Salutatorian Orubba Almansouri, on June 3, 2016. Milliken was chancellor of CUNY at the time.
James B. Milliken, newly-named sole finalist for chancellor of the University of Texas System, at City College of New York's commencement ceremony with then-First Lady Michelle Obama and Salutatorian Orubba Almansouri, on June 3, 2016. Milliken was chancellor of CUNY at the time.  REUTERS/Mike Segar

In the last few weeks of 2017, the chancellor of a major public university system announced his plans to step down.

He mentioned health issues and the new perspective they had given him. He suggested he’d take a teaching position within the system he’d led. And he planned his departure for May, after four years in the job.

The chancellor wasn't Bill McRaven, the former head of the University of Texas System, who cited similar reasons when he stepped down in May, but the man tapped to replace him: James Milliken, who goes by “J.B.,” the former chancellor of the City University of New York. Unlike McRaven, a UT-Austin alum and a retired Navy admiral, Milliken was largely unknown to the state's politicos when he was named, on Aug. 4, the sole finalist to become the next chancellor of the UT System. A Nebraska native, Milliken has the resume of a consummate higher education administrator and has helped lead university systems in three states, including New York.

In Texas, a state where former lawmakers head three of the other five major university systems, Milliken's status as a newcomer is unusual — but his experience at CUNY bears academic and political hallmarks that will sound familiar to those involved in higher education here.

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Like his counterpart in Texas, Milliken dealt with declining support for higher education and a tight state budget. Like UT System administrators, Milliken grappled with how best to support “nontraditional” students, those who are more likely to be poor, older, part-time or first-generation college-goers. And, like his predecessor at UT, Milliken faced political headwinds before announcing he’d step down for other reasons.

Because of a state-mandated waiting period, regents cannot officially appoint Milliken chancellor until after Saturday, and UT System officials said he won’t be available for interviews before he's formally named to the job. But in an emailed statement, Milliken said Texas was perhaps the only place that could lure him away from his plans to teach at CUNY and work in the private sector. With a sibling in Plano and in-laws in Dallas, Milliken said Texas has a “strong sense of home” to him, and that he was drawn to the reputation of the UT System, and to its untapped potential.

“There aren’t many public institutions where one can say ‘this is a time of optimism and confidence for what the future holds,’” Milliken said. “That’s how I feel about Texas.”

“There were no surprises.”

Milliken received a bachelor’s degree from the University of Nebraska and a law degree from New York University. Five years after graduating, in 1988, he left a comfortable job at a Wall Street law firm to return to his home state and alma mater as an administrator and professor in the University of Nebraska system. He soon moved to the University of North Carolina System, where he helped muster support for a $3.1 billion bond measure, approved by local voters in 2000, for campus construction.

In 2004, Milliken returned to NU as its president — a position equal in stature, and with duties comparable, to that of chancellor in Texas. (At the NU system, campuses are headed by chancellors, and the system led by a president.) There, Milliken negotiated a temporary tuition freeze with the governor, and launched a program that promised free tuition for all Pell Grant-eligible students in the state, which was seen as a way to help meet workforce needs.

Milliken’s ability to build relationships, said Tim Clare, vice chair of the NU system’s governing board, was among his greatest assets — and helped keep tuition “affordable and any increases predictable.”

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“There were no surprises, no gotchas. It was, ‘Hey, you’re going to see this in the paper, this is what I’m thinking, this is why I’m doing what I’m doing,’” Clare said. “Every step that he took, different political relationships knew what he was going to be doing.”

During Milliken’s tenure, the system’s flagship campus in Lincoln was booted from the Association of American Universities, a selective group of research institutions. The committee that oversaw Lincoln’s ouster was chaired by, of all people, Larry Faulkner, a former UT-Austin president who is serving as the System’s interim chancellor until Milliken takes over. Faulkner said in a statement that the “outcome had nothing to do with the leadership at Nebraska, who were widely admired," but to gains made by other schools.

When Milliken departed the four-campus NU system, after a decade in the top job, it was for an institution roughly five times larger: New York City’s CUNY system, whose flagship is sometimes called the “Harvard of the proletariat.”

Championing low-income students

As a new chancellor in New York, Milliken made a lasting first impression on Peter Sloane, chief executive of the Heckscher Foundation for Children. Intrigued by Milliken’s transition from Wall Street lawyer to higher education administrator, Sloane asked him to attend a lunch with a number of funders interested in education.

“J.B. arrived at that lunch — no notes, no support people — and sat down and started talking about his vision for CUNY,” Sloane said. “It was all based on access; I was tremendously inspired.” The foundation Sloane heads, which is based in New York and helps underserved youth, committed millions of dollars to programs Milliken championed at CUNY.

Spread across 24 institutions, including seven community colleges, CUNY’s 274,000 students are ethnically diverse and largely low-income. More than 66 percent of the system’s full-time undergraduates have their tuition fully covered by state and federal funds earmarked for poor students — and Milliken “put his considerable reputation and imprimatur” behind programs to help them, said Sloane.

While at CUNY, Milliken is credited with dramatically expanding an initiative called ASAP, or Accelerated Study in Associate Programs — that consolidates class schedules and provides tutoring and financial help, like free MetroCard fare, to the system’s students. By removing roadblocks that can cause low-income students to drop out, the ASAP program upped CUNY’s graduation rates, garnering national attention and leading other schools to try to replicate the model.

Like CUNY, the UT System considers itself a springboard for low-income students, and its schools range from the flagship in Austin to campuses in El Paso and the Rio Grande Valley, where the majority of the student bodies are Hispanic. Efforts Milliken oversaw at CUNY — from creating one-stop administrative centers, to bolstering remedial education, to lopping administrative expenses — have also been rolled out, hundreds of miles away, on UT’s campuses.

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A high point of Milliken’s tenure at CUNY, said Jill O’Donnell-Tormey, a trustee, came when a 2017 study showed the system launched more than five times as many low-income students into the middle or upper class than all eight Ivy League schools combined with Duke University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Stanford University and the University of Chicago. (The study cited UTEP and UT-Pan American, now part of UT-Rio Grande Valley, as similar engines of upward mobility.)

But by the time that study was published, Milliken was less than a year from stepping down — and other, less laudable events at CUNY had also made the headlines.

A critical audit

Around the country, public schools have seen their state funding slashed in the past decade, and CUNY was not exempt from financial pressures. Though based in New York City, the CUNY system is largely funded by the state, and in 2016, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo tried to foist some $485 million for CUNY onto the city’s ledger. After political negotiations, he agreed not to. But, based on prior budgets, system officials had asked some campuses to trim their expenses by at least 3 percent, feeding complaints about deteriorating facilities and low faculty morale. (The administration’s budget received a 6 percent shave.)

There had also been major turnover on CUNY’s 17-member board of trustees, which has an oversight role similar to the UT System’s regents. Nearly all the trustees who had hired Milliken in 2014 were replaced by 2017, and many of the spots were filled by Cuomo, who can appoint ten of the board’s members.

“New York's a tough city,” said O’Donnell-Tormey, the trustee. Because the funding comes from two sides, the chancellor of CUNY has to be “somewhat politically savvy." She said the system’s budget did well under Milliken’s leadership.

In the meantime, the system’s flagship campus, City College, was in the klieg lights over the use of foundation money to cover some personal expenses of its then-president, Lisa Coico, who resigned in October 2016.

Amid a widening scandal about financial controls at CUNY, the New York state inspector general launched a probe — at the request of the system's board chair — and issued an interim report that found the potential for financial waste and abuse could be blamed on lack of oversight, decentralized management policies, and failures by those “charged with the daily operations,” including Milliken and the system’s general counsel.

The report, which centered on findings that pre-dated Milliken’s time as chancellor, said the system “expended funds on questionable activities” and that its colleges and affiliated not-for-profit foundations, which hold some $1 billion in all, lacked “sufficient controls." A group of city council members suggested Cuomo was using the report to politicize the system, and Milliken said in a statement that he, campus leaders and the board took corrective action immediately after the report was released.

New financial checks and guidelines were introduced. But a year later, in November 2017, Milliken announced he would step down, saying he’d had health challenges tied to throat cancer that he’d been diagnosed with eight months before, and had received treatment for. In a letter to the CUNY community, Milliken wrote that he expected to be “active and working for many more years.” And he referenced the new trustees on CUNY’s governing board: “They should have the opportunity to help shape the leadership and agenda for the future.”

“I have very much enjoyed working with the talented people who have served and who currently serve as CUNY trustees,” he wrote, “and I will always be grateful for the opportunity and support they have given me.”

Randa Safady, a UT System spokesperson, said Milliken received a “clean bill of health” over the summer. She also said that regents and the search committee did a “thorough examination” of candidates’ backgrounds, and found the CUNY trustees and Milliken had “quickly and thoroughly sought to address” the inspector general’s report — including by “strengthening general financial oversight, and updating and amending a number of long-standing policies and practices.”

A political job

UT System regents, who are appointed by the governor, tapped Milliken to be the system’s next chancellor after a months-long search process that played out largely behind closed doors. They cited his experience in higher education administration and his work with institutions similar to the UT System’s. Some of Milliken’s former associates say CUNY, in particular — with its complicated funding, its politics, and its faculty and staff unions — has equipped him to wrangle the UT System.

But in Texas, being chancellor of a major university system is, in many ways, a political job, and it remains an open question how Milliken will be received at the state Capitol building, five blocks away from the system's downtown Austin headquarters.

Just last week, a well-liked and widely-respected chancellor abruptly announced his retirement from the Texas Tech University System, retreating to a pre-planned vacation and leaving a surprised public to ponder the political machinations behind the move.

Milliken’s nomination comes as UT System’s governing board is signaling restraint after being criticized in recent years for having high overhead costs and too many system-led initiatives. The system’s administrative headcount has been cut since 2017, a high point, and a budget approved in August shows the system’s administrative budget will be reduced another 16 percent.

A task force of regents, headed by former state Sen. Kevin Eltife, a Republican from Tyler, is expected to issue a report in the fall that will “point to more downsizing,” said a source close to the UT System.

The board, the source added, is “looking to the new chancellor to implement that.”

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