The next chancellor of the University of Texas System will need quite a skill set: intellectual and administrative chops to oversee 14 academic and health campuses, political savvy for navigating sometimes treacherous waters at the state Legislature and an unwavering commitment to the mission of teaching, learning, research and public service.
He or she will succeed Bill McRaven, a retired admiral who plans to step down by the end of May, citing health concerns.
“It is a very difficult and demanding job, as far from a sinecure as one could ever get,” said Michael Poliakoff, president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni. “The number of people who can do it well is a limited pool.”
Selecting the right person “is arguably the most important task” for the UT System Board of Regents, he said. The system’s “extraordinary stature and achievement,” he added, should attract ample candidates for chief executive of an enterprise whose components include a top-tier flagship in Austin and a world-renowned cancer center in Houston.
Sara Martinez Tucker, chairwoman of the regents, will lead a five-member search committee charged with making recommendations to the full board. In addition to naming the UT board’s vice chairmen, Regents Jeffery Hildebrand and Paul Foster, to the panel, Tucker broke with tradition and added two outsiders, James Huffines and Donald Evans.
Huffines and Evans are former chairmen of the UT board with reputations as moderate Republicans who have deep ties in business and civic circles. Huffines, a retired banker who was appointments secretary for Gov. Bill Clements in the late 1980s, is chairman of Gov. Greg Abbott’s advisory board for luring top-flight researchers to universities in Texas. Evans, an oilman, was commerce secretary under President George W. Bush.
Although firms have been hired in the past to assist with chancellor searches, the committee has yet to meet and therefore has not decided whether to enlist one, said Randa Safady, a spokeswoman for the UT System.
Tucker made it clear at a regents meeting last month that she hopes a chancellor can be selected quickly, adding that McRaven recommended “sooner rather than later so that the new chancellor has sufficient time to prepare for the 2019 legislative session. And ideally we’d like to give the successor at least six months to prepare for the legislative session,” she said.
McRaven “has been very candid about how tough it was to start in January (2015) right when the legislative session was about to begin,” Tucker said.
The system has never had a female or black chancellor, and some people have suggested that Tucker herself might be a fine choice. Her résumé includes stints as undersecretary of education under Bush, CEO of the Hispanic Scholarship Fund and regional vice president at AT&T. Like McRaven, she earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism at UT-Austin. Neither Tucker nor system representatives responded to a request for comment.
Another name that has surfaced is Margaret Spellings, who was Bush’s education secretary while Tucker was undersecretary. Spellings has deep ties to Texas, having held staff positions at the state House of Representatives, Austin Community College and the Texas Association of School Boards, in addition to serving as senior adviser to Bush when he was governor. Spellings is president of the 17-campus University of North Carolina System.
Other names being mentioned include Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, former CEO of Exxon Mobil Corp. and a UT-Austin graduate whose tenure in the Trump administration seems day-to-day at times, and Dan Branch, a former state House member who chaired the Higher Education Committee. Former U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, a UT-Austin graduate who might well enjoy the job, is a long shot considering that she was just sworn in as U.S. representative to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in August.
Internal candidates potentially could include William Henrich, president of the UT Health Science Center at San Antonio; David Callender, president of the UT Medical Branch at Galveston; and Kirk Calhoun, president of the UT Health Science Center at Tyler, who happens to be black.
If past is prologue, the names of two or three serious contenders might emerge in time, but the Board of Regents will almost certainly avail itself of a state law that allows public governing boards to name a sole finalist, with no opportunity for the public to weigh in on others who might have aspired to the position.
If there’s one thing the next chancellor won’t have to deal with, it’s boredom. Besides preparing to defend budget requests and tuition during the legislative session, he or she will be taking the system’s helm at a time when it is competing for the contract to operate Los Alamos National Laboratory, rethinking the organization and budget of its administrative headquarters with an eye toward downsizing, and figuring out how to unload 300 acres purchased in Houston for a campus plan that McRaven touted and then abandoned amid intense opposition from state lawmakers and even some of the regents.
Which brings up another challenge for the next chancellor: The UT board is sometimes divided on important issues. Robust debate is one thing, but it was an unexpected twist when the regents voted 4-3 on something as consequential as the decision to pursue the contract for Los Alamos, birthplace of the nation’s nuclear weapons program.
A number of the state’s public university systems have signed up Texas politicians as chancellors in recent years, in part to avoid missteps like McRaven’s failure to garner support from lawmakers and Abbott before embarking on his Houston initiative. Robert Duncan, a former state senator, leads the Texas Tech University System. John Sharp, a former state comptroller, is chancellor of the Texas A&M University System. Brian McCall, previously a state representative, oversees the Texas State University System.
The UT regents thus far have been unwilling to go that route, even when pressured to do so by then-Gov. Rick Perry. The GOP governor pushed in 2009 for John Montford, a former state senator, but the regents chose Francisco Cigarroa, a surgeon and former president of the UT Health Science Center at San Antonio.
And when Perry wanted Kyle Janek, a former state senator whom he had installed as executive commissioner for health and human services, the regents went with McRaven, a retired four-star admiral who designed the mission in which al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden was killed and who commanded all U.S. special operations forces.
The UT regents have also found business executives well-suited to the job, including Dan Burck, who worked in the oil industry and in the upper echelon of ESPN before becoming the system’s chief business officer and then chancellor.
“It’s a mistake to think there’s only one path to an excellent leader,” Poliakoff said. “But it has to be somebody who understands perfectly that the purpose is to serve the people of Texas through the University of Texas System.”