Texas A&M: A Case Study in Failure in Governance

 

Editor’s Note: This article first appeared in the Houston Chronicle yesterday, and we are reprinting it because we believe our readers need to know about what happened at Texas A&M so that it does not happen at Texas.

For most of the past 15 years Texas A&M University’s governance has worked well. Over the first 10 years of this period, President Ray Bowen’s initiative of Vision 2020—Creating a Culture of Excellence set a goal of establishing Texas A&M as one of the 10 best public universities in the country by the year 2020. At the turn of the century, our board of regents formally endorsed 2020 with the provision that “the general principles outlined … become a guide for the future direction of Texas A&M University and a permanent expression for excellence.”

Primarily on the basis of 2020, the university was invited into the company of the nation’s most prestigious research institutions—the Association of American Universities—where it joined only two other Texas institutions. Following President Bowen’s retirement, successor President Robert Gates embraced the template of Vision 2020 and used it to add quality faculty, enhance collaborative governance and to enhance the standing of, as he called it, “a unique American institution.”

Then, three or four years ago, the governance train began to go off the tracks. Today, governance at this important state institution has failed its community and the state’s citizens.

Shortly after President Gates departed for the Pentagon, the politicization of the university began to overwhelm the basic integrity of governance at A&M. By politicization, I mean that the appointment of regents and the chancellor, and their influence on the university, began to be driven more by political goals and political loyalty than by demonstrable qualities of stewardship and the best fiduciary interests of the university.

It is impossible to overlook Gov. Rick Perry’s role as a catalyst in all of this. By virtue of his time in office, he has appointed every regent. Further, protestations to the contrary, he has evidenced a keen interest in the workings of higher education. The minutes of the Governor’s Higher Education Summit on May 21, 2008—with 45 regents from six universities and Jeff Sandefer of “Seven Solutions” fame in attendance—show without any doubt the breathtakingly wide scope and penetrating extent of the governor’s interests in higher education.

In brief, those minutes reflect a political effort to force a radical restructuring of Texas higher education toward a simplistic focus on teaching efficiency. Notably absent from this meeting was a respect for the current institutional structure of higher education (i.e., either for the Legislature or the Higher Education Coordinating Board) or an appreciation for the benefits of a more straightforward engagement of the institutions involved.

At A&M, in the 2007-2009 era, the results of the politicization were increasingly clear. Both the chancellor and the chair of the regents were former members of the governor’s staff, and it seemed to a great many people—including me—that neither man was selected for his leadership qualifications or experience with educational institutions. Worse, the empowerment of the chancellor to direct operational authority over the flagship—a violation of longstanding practice and contrary to best national practices—led to a debilitating rupture of the flagship’s academic and administrative autonomy.

Other manifestations of failing governance were poorly managed presidential searches, sizable “settlements” with a pushed out president and chancellor, and direct intervention with senior university appointments. While our university’s student center was being remodeled, the arrogance of the regents manifested itself when they insisted on maintaining—at substantial incremental cost to the taxpayers—uninhibited access to their quarters within the building.

If all of this were not enough, we now know that our politically pliant board of regents team was monitoring the implementation of “The Seven Breakthrough Solutions” quietly and without any public disclosure or discussion. During all of this, one A&M regent sat—and continues to sit—in the very conflicted position of also being a board member of The Texas Public Policy Foundation, the official initiator of the “Solutions.”

A few months ago, 22 distinguished alumni of the university spoke out publicly. As a result, we were invited to meet, after a month, with two regents. As we tried to engage these two regents in substantive discussions about the denigration of governance processes at the university, we were mostly told that we had bad information and that we couldn’t understand or didn’t know what was going on.

And so, as we approach the hearings of the Joint Oversight Committee on Higher Education Governance, Excellence and Transparency, I must speak out as one who believes we have witnessed a fine university’s descent into failed governance. It is clear to me that our current regents, as a group, are not up to the high standards their jobs demand. They have earned a vote of “No Confidence” from me.

A first-rate university is a treasure and a great gift to the people; it should be held accountable by legitimate, thoughtful, interactive oversight. Reinterpretation of its mission and restructuring of its management for political purposes should never be allowed.

Hagler, a co-chair of the Vision 2020 initiative at Texas A&M and former chairman of the Texas A&M Foundation, is a member of the Executive Committee of the Texas Coalition for Excellence in Higher Education.

Creative Commons photo by uhltank via Flickr.

 

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