University of Texas System regents could hardly have found a more experienced higher education hand than James B. Milliken, whom they appointed chancellor last month.
But people who know him say Milliken’s political savvy, fundraising acumen and other leadership skills honed in 30 years at university systems in three states are complemented by an engaging conversational style, intellectual breadth and a self-deprecating sense of humor.
The combination of interpersonal and management chops impressed the UT System Board of Regents, whose vote to hire Milliken after a monthslong search was unanimous. He is serving as chancellor-designate without pay until his appointment takes effect Sept. 17; compensation and other employment terms have yet to be formally approved or announced.
Jeff Raikes, chairman of Stanford University’s Board of Trustees, wasn’t surprised by the regents’ choice. Raikes, a former top executive of Microsoft Corp. and former CEO of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, has known Milliken, who goes by J.B., for years. Both grew up in Nebraska, and Raikes was part of a kitchen cabinet that Milliken organized to help run a fundraising campaign he launched as president of the four-campus University of Nebraska. The campaign netted $1.8 billion, easily eclipsing the $1.2 billion goal.
“To be excellent in that type of role, a leader has to be a good strategic thinker but must also have the ability to build relationships, convene leaders and bring them around to that vision,” Raikes said. “J.B. is really quite strong at both, and that will make him an excellent leader for the University of Texas System. I think he uses his character traits quite well. It puts people at ease.”
Milliken will lead one of the largest higher education enterprises in the nation, with a flagship campus in Austin and 13 other academic and health campuses across Texas. Everything about the UT System is big, including its enrollment (235,000 students), its annual operating budget ($19.5 billion) and the number of outpatient visits each year (7.8 million) at system-owned or affiliated hospitals and clinics. UT campuses annually award more than a third of the state’s undergraduate degrees and nearly two-thirds of its health professional degrees.
What’s more, the system owns an asset unique in American higher education: 2.1 million acres, mainly in West Texas, from which the production of oil and natural gas fuels a multibillion-dollar endowment benefiting UT campuses and Texas A&M University System campuses.
“I would not have been attracted to very many opportunities at this point in my career,” said the 61-year-old Milliken, who has wavy salt-and-pepper hair and a quick smile. But “the ambition, the optimism and the confidence” of the UT System and the state as a whole drew him to the challenge.
He’s coming off a challenge that had high points and low ones, having served from 2014 until the end of May as chancellor of the City University of New York, the largest urban university in the nation, with 11 four-year schools, seven community colleges and six graduate, honors and professional schools. Under his watch, CUNY established a medical school, created a program to provide students who are or were in foster care with financial aid and academic advising, enrolled growing numbers of military veterans, and expanded a program that provides a range of assistance to students pursuing two-year degrees, including subsidized tuition and mass transit.
A low point came in November 2016 when New York State’s inspector general, Catherine Leahy Scott, released an interim report citing “financial waste and abuse” within the CUNY system, largely because of what she called a lack of transparency, oversight and centralized management in spending by CUNY and some of its colleges, including for funds donated by affiliated foundations that collectively are entrusted with about $1 billion.
The investigation, which a spokesman for Scott said is ongoing, was requested by the chairman of CUNY’s Board of Trustees after Lisa S. Coico resigned as president of CUNY’s City College of New York amid questions about her administration’s handling of more than $150,000 of her personal expenses, including $50,000 to furnish a rental home.
The report criticized Milliken by title for inadequate oversight and by name for a $40,000 annual supplement he authorized from the Queens College Foundation for that college’s president. Although he had sole authority under CUNY bylaws to award supplements without advising the Board of Trustees, such arrangements lack transparency and are susceptible to favoritism and outside influence, the report said.
Other expenditures faulted by the inspector general included a $35,000 retirement party for Brooklyn College’s former president and the hiring of outside lobbyists even though CUNY employs its own central and school-based government relations staff.
In an interview with the American-Statesman, Milliken said he took some administrative actions to improve oversight the day after the report was issued. “And then there were two major sets of amendments to board policy,” he said, including measures that put the funds from supporting foundations under increased oversight.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who appoints 10 of the CUNY board’s 17 members, nevertheless said the report showed it was “time for new leadership.”
Asked whether the episode stung, whether the report should have acknowledged that many policies preceded his arrival and whether he should have noticed and corrected flaws in oversight before the report came out, Milliken replied: “I thought it was important from the date the report was released — important to the university — to have a constructive response to it and to take advantage of any of the important recommendations in the report, and that’s what we’ve done. And that’s the position that the board and I were in complete agreement on.”
In another dust-up, hundreds of CUNY faculty and staff members, frustrated at working without raises for several years, staged an early morning protest in October 2015 outside the high-rise apartment building where Milliken lived in New York. Many carried ringing alarm clocks.
“I can assure you that when we say we are working on this every day to reach a successful resolution, I’m not exaggerating,” Milliken told CUNY trustees, according to Politico. “And while I may not need a reminder or a wake-up call, I do not begrudge our faculty and staff for providing one.”
Months later, CUNY and its largest union agreed on a new contract with raises, but not before the union voted overwhelmingly to authorize a strike if no deal could be reached. A strike would have been illegal under state law.
Randa Safady, the UT System’s vice chancellor for external relations, said the regents examine the records of chancellor candidates thoroughly.
“With respect to the IG’s interim report, it was clear that the CUNY trustees, working collaboratively with Chancellor Milliken, quickly and thoroughly sought to address the report’s recommendations by strengthening general financial oversight, and updating and amending a number of long-standing policies and practices,” Safady said.
A clean bill of health
Ted Mitchell, president of the American Council on Education and a former undersecretary of the U.S. Department of Education, said Milliken’s equanimity served him well during his time at CUNY. “When we would talk, he would smile, shrug his shoulders and say, ‘I knew it was a contact sport,’ ” Mitchell said.
Milliken also dealt with throat cancer while at CUNY. He announced in November that he would resign at the end of the academic year, citing the “extraordinarily challenging” months of radiation and chemotherapy.
His announcement noted that the 17-member Board of Trustees included only two members who were serving when he was appointed in 2014. The new trustees, some appointed by Cuomo and some by Mayor Bill de Blasio, “should have the opportunity to help shape the leadership and agenda for the future,” Milliken said.
Asked about his health now, Milliken replied: “Terrific. I initially lost 30 pounds. I don’t recommend the diet plan.”
His doctors at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center told him he is considered cured in light of the type of cancer, his age and his overall good health. “I said, ‘Would you mind putting that in writing?’ — thinking they would say no, and they said, ‘Sure.’ ” He has shared that statement with the UT regents.
Milliken succeeds a larger-than-life chancellor at the UT System, Bill McRaven, a retired four-star admiral and Navy SEAL whose 37-year military career included planning the raid in which Osama bin Laden was killed. McRaven stepped down at the end of May, and former UT-Austin President Larry Faulkner has been serving as interim chancellor.
As in New York, higher education is a contact sport in Texas. McRaven faced political opposition to his acquisition of land in Houston for what would have been a data science center and wound up scuttling the plan.
“I’m not going to comment at all about Adm. McRaven,” Milliken said. “I did not follow his experience in Texas. I can only say that I think that it is a key part of the job of a system president, a system chancellor, no matter where you are, to establish strong relationships with the political leadership of the state.”
To that end, Milliken has already met with Gov. Greg Abbott, and he plans to meet with legislative leaders soon. The chancellor-designate said he is impressed by Abbott’s multimillion-dollar initiative for recruiting top-flight researchers to the state’s universities. It remains to be seen whether their relationship will be as close as the one Milliken and then-Gov. Dave Heineman enjoyed in Nebraska.
“We had each other’s personal cellphone number and talked frequently,” Heineman said. “And three to four times a year, we would do news conferences together.”
They didn’t agree on everything. Heineman wasn’t a fan of Milliken’s service on the board of Omaha-based Valmont Industries Inc., which makes communication towers and irrigation equipment, suggesting that outside board membership should come after university service.
“I told him I thought the value of this was what I learned about complex organizations, their financial operations and their general operations and how they manage. And it’s been enormously useful to me,” said Milliken, who remains on Valmont’s board.
Earlier in his career, Milliken was senior vice president at the University of North Carolina System, where his assignments included lining up support among a range of organizations for a $3.1 billion statewide bond issue to fund university and community college facilities.
“J.B.’s role was central to the success,” said Molly Corbett Broad, who was president of the system at the time. “It was approved in all 100 counties in the state.”
Following a different path
A fifth-generation Nebraskan, Milliken was born in Fremont, a small town in the eastern part of the state. His father was a banker, and his mother taught elementary school. After graduating from the University of Nebraska, Milliken earned a law degree at New York University and practiced securities and commodities litigation in New York.
Then came the pivot in 1988 that would shape the trajectory of his career.
“I was young with few obligations and wanted to test work in higher education and public policy,” Milliken said. “I had an opportunity to return to my alma mater, initially as chief of staff to the system president.”
“He didn’t come out of a faculty position,” said Harvey Perlman, who was dean of the University of Nebraska’s College of Law at the time and later became chancellor of the flagship campus. “He didn’t follow the traditional path to higher education administration.”
Although Milliken has never worked in Texas, he has family ties to the state. His only sibling, a sister, lives in Plano, and his wife, Nana G.H. Smith, has a cousin in Dallas and family roots in Texas that go back generations.
Like many education leaders, Milliken is a strong proponent of the life-changing benefits of earning a postsecondary credential, especially for students from low-income families and students who are the first generation of their family to attend college.
“What drives me today in large part is the firm conviction that there is really no better engine of social and economic mobility than American public higher education,” he said, adding that he would have more to say in the next few months about making college more affordable and boosting graduation rates.
Milliken will become the UT System’s chief executive at a time when a task force of regents is working on plans to further downsize staffing and functions at the system’s administrative offices, which saw a reduction in head count and projects after criticism about the Houston initiative and an online education unit that has been disbanded.
“It is always important to look at how efficiently you’re operating, how cost-effectively you’re operating,” Milliken said. “I did the same thing in each of the other university systems.”
As for how aggressive he will be in advocating for increased funding for higher education during the state legislative session that begins in January — in the wake of past cuts and enrollment growth — Milliken said, “I will certainly do everything I can to encourage the essential investment in the university.”
During down time, Milliken likes to hunt, mainly waterfowl, which, as he put it, “was hard to explain in New York.” He said he doesn’t play golf as often, or as well, as he used to.
“I’ve continued a lifelong habit of running most mornings of the week, which is taking a toll,” he said. “I like to read most everything, and I love visual art and enjoy it whenever I can — mainly 20th-century American.”
JAMES B. MILLIKEN BIO
Born: March 18, 1957, in Fremont, Neb.
Education: Bachelor’s degree in English, University of Nebraska; law degree, New York University.
Family: Married to Nana G.H. Smith; three adult children.
Currently: Distinguished professor of law, education and public policy at the City University of New York’s Graduate Center, chancellor-designate without pay for the University of Texas System until his appointment takes effect Sept. 17.
Previously: Chancellor of the City University of New York, president of the University of Nebraska, senior vice president of the University of North Carolina System.
Books he’s read lately: “I know I should say ‘Gone to Texas,’ but I’m not finished. I read two extraordinary novels this summer: ‘Berlin Alexanderplatz’ and ‘Lincoln in the Bardo.’ ”