Getting to Know New UT System Chancellor James B. Milliken

James B. Milliken is sitting in a bright, polished conference room with marble floors and gaping windows that overlook Austin in The University of Texas System’s new downtown building. Dressed in a sharp charcoal suit and a burnt-orange tie patterned with small longhorns, the 61-year-old Nebraska native’s easy-going demeanor doesn’t at all suggest he’s just taken one of the most prestigious positions in the state of Texas. Then again, he’s been doing this kind of thing for more than 30 years.

In August, the UT System named Milliken as its new chancellor, the institution’s chief executive officer who reports to the Board of Regents. His hiring followed the announcement that William McRaven, BJ ’79, Life Member, Distinguished Alumnus, would be stepping down from the position he held the last four years due to his battle with chronic leukemia. Milliken, who just recently overcame his own struggle with throat cancer, comes to Texas after four years of serving as chancellor of New York City’s public university system, The City University of New York—the largest urban university system in the nation.

The former Wall Street lawyer made the move to higher education in 1988, believing he could make a difference in others’ lives. He started as an executive assistant to the president at his alma mater, University of Nebraska, and went on to become the senior vice president of the University of North Carolina, returning to NU for 10 years before winding up at CUNY. He has spearheaded numerous programs that focus on affordable higher education and student success initiatives like CUNY’s ASAP, or Accelerated Study in Associate Programs, that consolidates class schedules and provides tutoring and financial help to students in need.

“He has worked in practically every facet of higher education administration for large, dynamic university systems in three states,” UT System Board of Regents Chairman Sara Martinez Tucker, BJ ’76, MBA ’79, Life Member, Distinguished Alumna, said in a news release. “Our regents were impressed with his ability to develop a strategic vision, garner support for it, and then implement it with positive, measurable results.”

When we meet in early November, two months into his new position, Milliken is gearing up to head to South Texas the next day to visit the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, UTRGV, one of the 14 institutions across the state that he now leads. He tells me he’s learning all that he can about the state before the 2019 legislative session begins, during which he will become a prominent new face for higher education in Texas.

How’s it going so far?

I think it’s going well. I’ve been traveling around the state. I visited almost all of the institutions. I’ve been meeting as many Texans as I can and learning as much as I can about the state. And I’m doing some fun stuff. I went to my first Red River Showdown. I had my first corny dog at the State Fair. I’ve been sampling Texas barbecue. I voted in the midterms on UT Austin’s campus. It’s been very busy.

What attracted you to Texas?

A lot. Texas is the second-largest state, the third- youngest state in the country. We have an opportunity to give more students access to higher education, be a part of an educated workforce, have a better quality of life, and have a healthier state than almost anyone. It’s a place of terrific opportunity. And it’s not everywhere in this country that you have the governor, the political leadership, and the business leadership embrace the kinds of things that are important and can only be done with higher education.

What are your top priorities?

First of all, we need to focus on providing affordable access to the broadest range of students possible. I firmly believe that talent is distributed uniformly across demographic divisions, wealth, race, ethnicity, religion—any group that you have. Public higher education is about matching up that talent with opportunity and making sure everybody has the best shot at pursuing their dreams.

Second, it’s about ensuring those students that do come get a high quality education and graduate in a timely way. It’s also about continuing to build the research enterprise. We’ve got some of the best research universities, including our medical institutions in Texas, and it gives us a tremendous advantage. We have to keep building that. And finally, we have to do all this while being as cost-effective as we can.

As a newcomer to the state and this legislature, what’s your strategy going into session?

My strategy is to listen as much as I can and learn as much as I can about what leaders throughout the state think is important for Texas. We have a chance to be successful, but it’s about meeting as many people as I can, listening carefully to what they have to say, and helping to position the university system in a way that is responsive to the needs of the state.

What are the big issues affecting the UT System and higher ed this legislative session?

Well, I think policy makers and political leaders everywhere have some of the same concerns. They’re concerned about value. What are the people getting for what they’re investing? It’s up to us to see that we have our goals aligned and we are addressing the concerns that they have but, if we do that, people will support us.

How do you convince the state to invest in higher ed?

I think there’s never been a time in history when higher education is more important than it is today. Almost every new job being created requires education beyond high school so for Texas to become competitive in a global economy, we need a highly educated workforce. Also, in terms of individual opportunity, if people want the opportunity to make more money, to have a healthier and longer life, to be able to offer things to their children and their family that they didn’t have, higher education is the way that they can do that. In everything that the state is trying to achieve, public higher education has an important role to play.

What do you hope to achieve as chancellor?

I’m tremendously honored to be given the opportunity for a period of time to help lead The University of Texas System. In the time that I’m here, I hope to take what I’ve learned and bring some value to this system in a way that helps us educate more Texans, helps them be successful, helps provide better health care, helps grow the research enterprise that will help grow this state to be successful and competitive.

What is your leadership philosophy?

It’s best characterized as values-based leadership. I believe in participatory leadership, that requires respect for and participation by people throughout the organization. We all occupy these positions for relatively short periods of time. There are lots and lots of very smart people throughout The University of Texas System—about 100,000 of them. And that talent is so much more important to the state of Texas than anything any one person can do. So, my job is to create an environment where we take full advantage of that talent and where each of our institutions gets to be as successful as possible in pursuing its mission.

What’s something you want people to know about you?

Well, my family and I are delighted to be in Texas. We’ve met some of the most gracious and generous people that we’ve ever met in the last couple of months. It is a big place, as we’re discovering, but it’s also fun. The work is difficult, the challenges are significant, but the opportunities are great and the people here are special. The final thing I’d say is, I’m acquiring all kinds of new burnt-orange clothing. [Points to tie.]

It’s a great tie.

Thank you. Honestly, I can’t even tell what color it is anymore—everything’s that color now.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Photographs by Matt Wright-Steel


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