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Leader of Texas Tech System board resigns as chairman; permanent chancellor tapped

Rick Francis, a 15-year member of Tech's governing board, said Thursday he would step down from his position as chair. Tedd Mitchell, president of the system's Health Sciences Center and its interim chancellor, was also named sole finalist for the permanent position.

Campus view of the Texas Tech University Provost Office in Lubbock.

*Editor's note: This story was updated Friday to include comments from Jerry Hodge and John Esparza.

Weeks after Robert Duncan, a popular former lawmaker, unexpectedly announced that he would retire from his post as chancellor of the Texas Tech University System, the Lubbock-based system is undergoing another abrupt change in its leadership.

Tedd Mitchell, who has led the system on an interim basis since September, was on Thursday named the sole finalist to become the next permanent chancellor. Minutes later, a 15-year member of Tech's governing board, L. Frederick "Rick" Francis, announced he would resign his position as chair and said "it is time for a change in leadership."

Francis is expected to continue to serve as a regent through the end of his term, which expires in Jan. 2019, at which point he could be reappointed by Gov. Greg Abbott.

"Chairman's announcement," Francis said at a board meeting Thursday, after regents returned from a closed-door executive session. "It has been an honor to serve as the chairman of the board of regents. It is time for a change in leadership, and a nominating committee will be formed to put forth a slate of candidates in consideration of chairman and vice-chairman for election at our next meeting."

The meeting was then adjourned. Francis could not immediately be reached for additional comment. Named to the board of regents by former Gov. Rick Perry, Francis hails from El Paso, and had come under fire in recent weeks for his role in Duncan's early retirement from the system, one year before the former chancellor's employment agreement would have expired.

Sources familiar with recent events at Tech told The Texas Tribune in September that some regents had clashed with Duncan about the system's budget and a proposed veterinary medicine school in Amarillo, and that the disagreements culminated in Duncan privately offering to announce he would step down when his contract expired in June 2019.

"Unfortunately, that isn't going to happen," a source said Duncan was told, in an August conversation with Francis and another regent.

In a press conference after the announcements were made, regent Tim Lancaster, who has assumed the chair position, addressed the tumult of the past few months, and said the board is committed to coming "together for the betterment" of the system, regardless of internal disputes.

"Many of our people that are friends of Texas Tech have expressed their thoughts on the future, and they’ve talked about areas that they think that we should be able to grow in," said Lancaster, who was previously the board's vice chair. The regents have "taken all of that into consideration, we’ve listened to what people have told us."

He thanked Francis for his service, saying he'd worked "tireless hours," and then "reaffirmed" that the board would seek state funding to back the proposed veterinary school, as well as a planned mental health institute and dental school, in El Paso.

Lancaster also said Mitchell had a "tremendous" track record at Tech, where he has been president of the system's Health Sciences Center, in Lubbock, since 2010. Mitchell has continued to lead the campus while filling the post of temporary chancellor and on Thursday said he was grateful the regents had entrusted him with the opportunity to lead the system on a permanent basis.

Because of a state-mandated waiting period, university systems' governing boards must name final contenders for the position of chancellor at least 21 days before regents vote on whether to officially hire them.

In a statement, Duncan congratulated Mitchell — he is the "right choice for moving forward" — and urged continued support for the vet school. Francis' departure as chairman, he said, "presents Tech with a unique opportunity to heal and move forward with renewed vigor."

Jerry Hodge, a former Amarillo mayor, had been one of the most vocal figures calling for Francis to leave the system, launching a campaign in late-Sept. to fire the chairman and calling for greater diversity on the board, which includes no women nor natives of Amarillo or Lubbock. Hodge had planned to donate $10 million to Tech, but withdrew it after details of the gift were obtained by the Tribune. Speaking by phone Friday, he said he was happy Francis had stepped down as chairman — it was "the right thing to do" — but that he would be "happier" if Francis or Abbott signaled Francis would not serve an additional term as regent.

"Fifteen years is long enough on any board," he said.

Hodge also said "I tip my hat" to the other board members, and that he looked forward to sitting down with them and entering back into discussions about a vet school donation.

John Esparza, a Tech regent, said Friday the board would communicate, be transparent and "continue to work toward our long-term goals of establishing a veterinary school, a dental school as well as a mental health institution."

"As regents, we act in the best interest of the system, our students and the region," he said. "The issues we have faced the last few weeks have strengthened our resolve to do what is best for the system — even if we don’t always agree."

Disclosure: The Texas Tech University System has been a financial supporter 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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