University of Texas System regents unanimously named former state Sen. Kevin Eltife their new board chair Thursday, elevating to the top job an outspoken critic of system-level spending, and an architect of plans to curtail the system administration's role.
Eltife, who represented Tyler in the Senate as a Republican, abstained from the vote.
"I'm extremely honored to be named chair," he said in an interview after the meeting. "I hope I leave the place better than I found it."
The decision follows a series of personnel changes at the system, including the appointment of a new chancellor in August, several high-level departures, and the unexpected announcement that former board chair, Sara Martinez Tucker, would resign her position two years before her term was expected to end.
Tucker stepped down as chair at the end of Thursday’s meeting, which was conducted by telephone. She had previously said she would remain as chair until mid-January, but later told regents that an earlier departure would let the new board leadership be “in place for the entire” legislative session, which begins Jan. 8.
Her successor, Eltife, was quick to list his priority for those months.
"It's very important that we go over there and listen to our legislators and work with our elected officials and do what we can to help them during session," said Eltife, who served in the Senate under Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Gov. Greg Abbott, and "worked hand-in-hand" with the presumptive House speaker, Dennis Bonnen.
Eltife was appointed to the board in 2017. At the time, there was tension between the system and some lawmakers, who were bent on reining in costs, or irate they had not received forewarning about a UT System land purchase in Houston.
“This is one of the low points of the relationship between the UT System and the Legislature,” Eltife told The Texas Tribune at the time.
Eltife brought to the board a skepticism — shared by some of his former colleagues — about costly system-led initiatives, and he was instrumental in the production of a recent report that called for those “top-down” projects to end.
Released in October, the report recommends that the system adopt a “service provider” approach to working with the 14 institutions it oversees — and forecasts a reduction of up to 110 jobs among the administration’s staff. Though Tucker, as board chair, formed the task force that produced the report, a source close to the system said she delayed its release and tendered her resignation note shortly before it was made public.
She could not be immediately reached for comment.
Eltife said, "We want to make sure that the resources we're given are being spent wisely and efficiently, and we want those resources put in the hands of the 14 institutions."
"That was the direction I was given by Gov. Abbott back when he appointed me, and I was given that by the Senate when they confirmed me, and that's really been our goal ever since we got here," he said. "Basically, the theme is the same."
He also cited the vision outlined in the report when asked how to balance the wants of the system's various campuses, which differ in size and prominence.
"Every institution serves a different niche and a different need and a different area, and we want them all to excel," Eltife said. "Again, we need to be customer-focused. Those 14 institutions are our customers."
He added that "The reality is, UT-Austin is our flagship."
"It means a lot to the system. It's a brand," he said. "And we need to make sure we take care of the flagship and give them the resources they need to excel."
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