The incoming chancellor of the University of Texas System is new to Texas politics. But minutes after he was officially hired and then shuttled down the hall to address reporters Monday, he made it clear that he understood the political nature of his new job.
"You can't do anything important in public higher education without a partnership, a close partnership, with the leadership of state government, and frankly a partnership with the philanthropic community," said James Milliken, a longtime higher education administrator, who will take the reins of the 14-institution UT System on Sept. 17.
"It is one of the essential roles of the job," he said. "I've been successful at that in other places; I certainly hope that I'm successful at it in Texas."
The months-long search to find the UT's System's next chancellor officially ended Monday, when regents unanimously tapped Milliken three weeks after naming him the sole finalist for the post. Milliken, 61, comes to Texas from New York, where he led the City University of New York for four years, and the University of Nebraska System for 10 years before that. At the time the job came on his radar, he said he was happily planning to work as a professor at CUNY.
“This is the one place I think that I would leave New York for,” he said he remembered thinking.
Compensation for Milliken, who was accompanied Monday by his wife, Nana, has not yet been announced. He will serve as an unpaid system employee until Sept. 17, when he takes over from Larry Faulkner, a former UT-Austin president who has served as interim chancellor since June.
Milliken has "worked in practically every facet of higher education administration for large, dynamic university systems in three states," said Sara Martinez Tucker, the chairman of the board. Regents were "interested in his innovations in the areas of student success and access," and in his proven "ability to develop a strategic vision, garner support for it, and then implement it with positive, measurable results."
As chief executive of the 14-institution Texas system, Milliken will oversee eight academic colleges, six health institutions and an operating budget that tops $18 billion.
Coming three weeks after Milliken was named the only finalist for the position, Monday’s vote was largely a formality. A state statute requires that final contenders for the chancellor job be named at least 21 days before regents vote on whether to employ them. Though the system's governing board interviewed multiple candidates in a closed-door session Aug. 4, they emerged to announce only Milliken as a finalist, a standard maneuver in the state.
Wearing an eye-catching tie patterned with small animals, Milliken outlined Monday the political aptitude he will bring to the job, and couched his goals for the system in what he called a "conviction that there is really no better engine of social and economic mobility in America than public higher education."
He said he's already had a "terrific" conversation with Gov. Greg Abbott, and that he will spend the weeks leading up to Sept. 17 meeting with system and political leadership, and "doing a little homework."
Milliken, whose career in higher education spans 30 years and three states, is no stranger to the political nature of the chancellor position — in fact, he appeared to be embroiled in politics at CUNY, a New York City-based system that receives that bulk of its funding from the state. During his tenure there, Milliken faced major turnover on the system’s governing board, a spending scandal at the system’s flagship, and a report questioning the financial controls in place at CUNY, which city council members suggested was used by the governor to politicize the system.
In New York, as in Nebraska and North Carolina, Milliken said "part of my job was always leading the efforts with those systems with the political leadership both federally and at the state level. It's something I look forward to."
He will assume the chancellorship in Texas during a time of self-reflection for the system. In recent months, the UT System has responded to criticism from legislators that centered on ambitious but costly system-led initiatives. The system administration’s budget has shrunk since then, as has its headcount, and a task force of regents is expected to put forth a report in the fall recommending that the system’s role be further constrained.
Milliken told reporters that the “number one job” of system leadership is to create an environment where the institutions they oversee can be successful, and that he's "comfortable with the idea" of curtailing the system's role.
The regents’ report is an important exercise, one he's undertaken in previous jobs, he said. He added that it's incumbent on higher education leadership to demonstrate that the public funds they receive are being put to good use.
"The key here is it's always important to look at how efficiently you're operating, how cost-effectively you're operating," Milliken said, "and making sure that what you're doing is essential to the well-being of the university system and the state of Texas."
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