Sara Martinez Tucker, only the second woman to chair the University of Texas System Board of Regents, laughed off suggestions that she might be well-suited to become the system’s next chancellor and said she’s focused on finding the best candidates for that job as well as downsizing the system administration and figuring out what to do with land in Houston no longer needed for a campus.
“My job right now is not to run for that office,” she said of the chancellorship. “I would hate for anybody to think that I was harboring those thoughts while I was chair of the search committee. My job is to articulate a compelling job description to incredible candidates in the hope of presenting this board a slate of terrific options. That’s what I’m going to stay busy doing.”
Tucker, who made the comments in a wide-ranging interview with the American-Statesman, is a former undersecretary of the U.S. Department of Education, where she oversaw all matters related to postsecondary education, vocational and adult education, and federal student aid.
More than one person has said she might make an able successor to Chancellor Bill McRaven, who announced in December that he would step down from the job of overseeing the 14-campus system by the end of May because of health issues.
Although she stopped short of declaring flat out that she would never be chancellor, Tucker wouldn’t have her current role without the support of Gov. Greg Abbott. True, she was elected unanimously to lead the board by her fellow regents in September, the second woman to have that honor since the board’s inception in 1881. (The first was Colleen McHugh, elected in 2010.) By longstanding, unwritten custom, a signal from the governor’s office dictates the regents’ choice.
The system has never had a female chancellor, a position that dates to 1950, according to the system’s website.
Chairing the UT board is essentially a full-time job, albeit unpaid. It’s a particularly challenging task now, with a to-do list that includes pursuing the contract to operate Los Alamos National Laboratory and preparing for the 2019 state legislative session.
The search for a chancellor — arguably the most important task facing the board — is taking place at a somewhat awkward time, inasmuch as a task force led by Regent Kevin Eltife is working simultaneously on recommendations to reorganize the system administration to cut costs and thereby make more money available for the campuses.
The UT System is seeking outside help for the task force — for example, in researching how the University of California and other major university systems are organized. Proposals from companies interested in bidding for the work are due Jan. 26.
The task force’s final report with recommendations is due in July and will be considered by the Board of Regents in August for inclusion in the system’s next budget. But Tucker wants to have a new chancellor on board in June so he or she will have six months to bone up for the legislative session. In other words, the regents are seeking a new chancellor to lead an enterprise whose outlines are in flux.
Tucker isn’t worried. “I would hope that any candidates would appreciate that this is in essence doing some initial groundwork for him or for her to grab hold of and then make their own,” she said. “It really is about advancing our institutions.
“The other thing I’m very mindful of is the Legislature made clear in this past session their concern over our spending,” so it’s essential for the regents to have a budget in August “modeled after best-in-class systems,” Tucker said.
The search that produced McRaven, who succeeded Francisco Cigarroa, took place at an even more unsettled time, with the regents split on various matters, one of their number under investigation by a special House panel and an investigation into favoritism in admissions at the Austin flagship beginning.
Although the turmoil has faded in recent years with Abbott’s appointment of new regents to the nine-member panel, disagreements still surface. Most notable was the board’s 4-3 vote — with Tucker not voting and Rad Weaver no longer on the conference call — to seek the contract to run Los Alamos, a nuclear weapons lab in New Mexico.
If it had been a tie vote or if she were not head of the board, Tucker said, she would have voted to go after the contract, citing opportunities for research, student internship and management fees.
“This is going to be a tough legislative session, and this is an opportunity that, if done well, brings a lot of resources on the academic side and on the fiscal side,” she said. “I probably would have said we owe it to our students, we owe it to our institutions, to make a good run for it. These opportunities don’t come along very often.”
Meanwhile, a task force led by Regent Jeffery Hildebrand has been charged with submitting a proposal in July for “divestiture” of 300 acres in Houston acquired by the system for about $210 million as part of a plan by McRaven to develop a campus of sorts. He dropped the plan amid opposition from some state lawmakers and some of the regents and public silence from Abbott that amounted to opposition as well.
Asked whether the system might retain some or even all of the property, Tucker replied: “I don’t know. I was asked: Are there any elephants? Are there any sacred cows? I said there are no sacred cows. Give me the highest and best use for the marketing prospects and development prospects and come back to us.”