Charles Miller, iconoclastic former chairman of UT regents, dies at 83

Dec 07, 2017
Board of Regents Chairman Charles Miller, talking to people in attendence at a UT Board of Regents meeting in 2012. RALPH BARRERA / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

Charles Miller, a former chairman of the University of Texas System Board of Regents and one of the architects of the state’s accountability system that uses test scores to evaluate public schools, died Wednesday in Houston.

Miller, 83, had fought cancer for five years, according to a family spokeswoman. The type of cancer was not disclosed.

With his frizzy hair, rapid-fire speaking style, intellectual curiosity and a demeanor that occasionally veered toward the prickly, he brought a new level of intensity to the Board of Regents. He also brought wealth from a career as a money manager and deep political ties to leading the board, a volunteer position with virtually full-time demands.

Miller was appointed a regent by Gov. George W. Bush in 1999. He served as chairman from April 2001 to June 2004, overseeing the creation of a charter school in East Austin, the hiring of Mark Yudof as chancellor and the imposition of stricter controls on the system’s multibillion-dollar investment arm. In addition, he had a hand in winning legislative permission for public university governing boards to set tuition without lawmakers’ approval, and he pressured presidents of the various UT campuses to raise graduation rates.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Miller led a number of education commissions in Texas, ultimately leaving his fingerprints on the public school accountability system.

After stepping down in 2004 from the UT board, Miller was tapped by U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings to lead a commission on the future of higher education. He had been something of a mentor to Spellings when she served as Bush’s education adviser while he was governor.

Miller’s panel delivered sweeping recommendations to increase financial aid for college students, measure student learning with standardized tests and require colleges to disclose data on graduation rates, spending and other matters.

Sara Martinez Tucker, chairwoman of the UT board, said Miller was “a pillar of Texas higher education,” adding: “Chairman Miller was a policy wizard at the federal and state levels and an expert in investments and endowments held in the public trust. He was widely considered to be the father of present-day accountability and transparency in Texas higher education.”

Born in Galveston on Feb. 13, 1934, Miller earned a math degree at UT-Austin and made a living first as an analyst and portfolio manager for the Teacher Retirement System of Texas and later as an investment adviser in Houston.

“Charles Miller was a brilliant man,” said Larry Faulkner, who was president of UT-Austin during Miller’s time as a regent and counted him as a good friend for years afterward. “He was a deep and thorough thinker, consistently dedicated to a better social future for Texas and for the nation.

“I felt sometimes he would belabor things, but I also learned to pay a lot of attention to things he had concern about. More often than not, there would be reality to it.”

Miller’s insistence on greater oversight of the UT board’s investment arm, UTIMCO, drew sharp debate from some regents who served on the investment company’s board, but Miller said such debate was to be expected and encouraged.

“He was actually very conservative in investment policies and adamant that we had to have a balanced portfolio,” said Yudof. “He was really vindicated when we had the Great Recession.”

Miller was a Republican but nevertheless supported Democratic Gov. Ann Richards as well as Bush, Gov. Rick Perry and other GOP figures, Yudof said.

True to his penchant for being something of an iconoclast, Miller and another former UT chairman, Gene Powell, signed a friend-of-the-court brief last year backing an ultimately unsuccessful lawsuit by then-Regent Wallace Hall Jr. to secure unlimited access to records, including confidential information about students, from an admissions investigation at the Austin flagship.

A consummate bridge player, Miller also had a contemplative side. He and his wife, Beth, used to own a 20-acre homestead in Santa Fe, N.M., that they turned into an ecological wonderland and modern-day salon, drawing visitors ranging from actor Val Kilmer to the Dalai Lama.

Miller led or served on numerous business and civic boards, including the Greater Houston Partnership, the Governor’s Business Council, the Texas State Pension Review Board, the University of Houston Foundation, the Texas Medical Center and the National Wildlife Federation Endowment.

In addition to his wife, he is survived by a stepdaughter, Mary Lynn Patton; a stepson, Robert Patton; three grandchildren; and one great-grandchild.

A memorial service will be held at 11 a.m. Monday at Geo. H. Lewis & Sons, 1010 Bering Drive, Houston. In lieu of flowers, memorial contributions may be made to the UT MD Anderson Cancer Center, 1515 Holcombe Blvd., Houston, TX 77030.