Meet the Longhorn Serving as Chairman of the UT System’s Board of Regents

 

After graduating from high school in Tyler, Texas, Kevin P. Eltife wanted to stay close to home, so he enrolled at Southern Methodist University. But, as it goes for many Longhorn transfer students, once he started making trips to Austin to visit friends, Eltife, BBA ’81, Life Member, fell in love with the Forty Acres. “I got a little taste of Austin and UT and I said, ‘I’ve gotta get my act together, get my grades up, and do what it takes to get into The University of Texas at Austin,’” Eltife says. “And that’s what I did.”

All these years later, Eltife still loves UT—and, as of December 2018, is in a unique position to impact his alma mater, as chairman of The University of Texas System Board of Regents.

Post-college, Eltife built a real estate business from the ground up, relying on bank loans and his education to become a developer with more than 20 properties in Tyler. But for Eltife, who has been a Tyler City Council member, the city’s mayor, a member of the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, and a state senator, public service has always been just as important.

“Chairman Eltife truly understands the purpose of higher education in Texas,” says UT president Gregory L. Fenves. “He is a no-nonsense leader who sees that public research universities are paving the way for the future of our state and our nation. Through his decades of public service, the chairman knows how to hold government accountable to the public it serves. He is focused on making meaningful, lasting improvements and I can’t wait to see all that he does for our university.” Kenneth Jastrow, BBA ’69, MBA ’71, Life Member, Distinguished Alumnus, calls Eltife an effective and dedicated leader. “He is the right person at the right time to lead the UT System to the future,” he says.

The Alcalde caught up with the unanimously appointed chairman of the board about his bold vision, and exactly what we can expect from his six-year term.

 

Public service is obviously important to you. Where does that come from?

When my father died, I was a year and a half old, my sister was five, and my brother was 10. My mother never remarried. She raised us basically on Social Security and veterans benefits. And she instilled in us two things. One was that no matter how little you have, there are people who have less, and you need to help them. And the other was that you have to get a good education if you’re going to succeed in life. She just pushed us. We were either going to go to a community college or a four-year university. My mother is the reason for my success, and a big component of that is the education I got at The University of Texas.

Why do you think you were chosen for this role?

Because of the way I was raised, I was a big proponent of public education when I served in the Texas Senate. It’s the key to the future of the state. We’ve got to make sure we have affordable accessible education for the kids in Texas. After I decided not to run [for senator] again, I was honored Gov. Abbott asked me to be on the UT Board of Regents, where I was asked to chair a task force for the reorganization of The University of Texas System. We produced a report with the help of Ernst & Young, and it was the start of asking: How do we change the culture at the system?

What drove that task force?

We want to push as many of the dollars that we have access to down to our universities. I think that’s critical. The whole purpose of this reorganization and looking at the efficiencies at the UT System is to see, are there savings? And if we can find the savings, and we can be a leaner operation, that money flows down to the flagship, it flows down to The University of Texas at Austin. It all, in my opinion, goes back to the student. Every dollar we spend, we should make sure that it’s being spent wisely and efficiently to benefit the students. That’s what it’s all about. That’s the goal, that’s the key, that’s what we have to keep focused on—the student.

What does that look like?

We’re implementing the task force report. We’re already in the process of saving millions of dollars annually. We don’t really want to see any more top-down initiatives from the system. The system should be there to serve our 14 institutions.

What are some of your other goals?

We’re going to ask our institutions to come before the board over the next couple of years and present a three- to five-year financial picture, so we don’t just wait until a session to go to the legislature with our hand out. We work with them in the interim and say, “All right, here’s our long-range plans for The University of Texas System.” This session, I testified before the Senate Financial Committee and the House Appropriations Subcommittee on education, on Article 3. Both were very well received, because of our efforts to streamline and reorganize—probably one of the best receptions the system has gotten in a long time.

That’s great.

It’s exciting. When I first got on the Board of Regents, one of my biggest concerns was our relationship with the legislature. I think we had some bumps in the road over the years with some of our spending and some of the projects the system had done. That was the other thing I set out to do with my fellow regents over the last two years—rebuild those relationships. I think we’re doing that. We’re making progress.

What makes Texas one of the best states to get an education?

The University of Texas brand is a worldwide brand. We’re known for excellence. And I know this can be a touchy subject. A lot of people get upset because their child doesn’t get into UT, and I totally understand that. But let’s look at the obvious here: 30,000-plus kids a year want to go to our flagship. That speaks volumes about what we have to offer. We should be proud of that. And I say this all the time—about all our public universities in the state of Texas, not just the UT system—they are incredible institutions, and they are a huge economic driver for the state. If we’re going to continue the growth we’ve had in Texas, we must have an educated workforce. We want the ability to educate students and keep them in Texas.

[This interview has been edited and condensed.]

Photograph by Matt Wright-Steel

 

 
 
 

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