Revealing new details about the behind-the-scenes selection process, three men who were on the University of Texas System’s governing board when it hired Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa said Tuesday that Gov. Rick Perry privately encouraged them to back another candidate for the job.
The three former regents—Perry appointees Robert Rowling, John Barnhill Jr. and H. Scott Caven Jr.—said Perry urged them to hire John Montford, a former state senator and Texas Tech University System chancellor who is a telecommunications lobbyist. While others have said Perry favored Montford for the job, the regents had remained silent about his involvement until Tuesday.
The governor’s lobbying on behalf of Montford is the latest illustration of how involved he has become in the governance of public institutions of higher education. On paper, at least, Perry’s role in running the campuses starts and ends with the appointment of regents to staggered six-year terms.
But he has also quietly signaled his preferences for presiding officers of the boards of regents, particularly at the flagships. For instance, it’s no coincidence that a longtime Perry ally, James Huffines, is leading the UT System board.
Perry came under legislative scrutiny this year after moving money around in his economic development funds to give an unusually large grant to the Texas A&M University System for a pharmaceutical research center, and his former chief of staff, Texas A&M System Chancellor Mike McKinney, was at the center of a fight this year over the leadership of the system’s flagship campus in College Station.
On Friday, two former Texas Tech regents who were appointed by Perry said associates of the governor encouraged them to resign their posts because they are supporting U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, who is running against Perry in the March Republican primary.
Hutchison is seeking to make Perry’s involvement in higher education an issue in the governor’s race, chiding him in her campaign kickoff speech for “playing politics with a great university like Texas A&M.”
Barnhill, whose term as a UT regent ended in April, said Perry tried to sell him on Montford in a phone call about 20 minutes before the December meeting at which the board decided to name Cigarroa, then president of the UT Health Science Center at San Antonio, the only finalist for the job. Perry touted Montford’s experience at Texas Tech and his ability to raise money and did not mention Cigarroa by name, Barnhill said.
“There was no question that after we went through the interview process, Francisco was the person that I was going to vote for,” Barnhill said. “And realizing that it was in opposition to the guy who had appointed me to the board, that was a little tough to do. But I felt like we were doing what was best for the university, the university system and the state.”
Barnhill said he thought one of Perry’s concerns was that universities had been overrun by liberal professors and he thought bringing in Montford could help reverse that trend.
Asked whether Perry’s call was appropriate, Barnhill said, “I hate to answer yes or no. Basically it was one of those things where you could say I might have expected it because I had the understanding that some of these other (regents) had been contacted and I hadn’t. But at the same time, I’m not sure that it had a positive effect on me.”
Barnhill said he respects Perry and considers him a friend, but he’s supporting Hutchison because he supported Perry in 2006 and told Hutchison, who considered running that year, that he would support her the next time she considered running. He said he was surprised when Perry, already the state’s longest-serving governor, announced that he would run again in 2010.
It was no secret that Perry favored Montford, said Caven, a former regent who was chairman of the UT System Board of Regents at the time of the chancellor selection. Months earlier, Perry had told a few state legislators from San Antonio that Montford would be a good choice.
“I did have a few communications with the governor, and he reaffirmed what he had said publicly, that John Montford would be a good candidate for the job,” Caven said Tuesday.
Caven said it was “perfectly proper” for the governor to express his opinion, adding that the governor agreed with Caven’s observation that the final decision was the board’s because it is legally responsible for doing what’s best for the UT System and the state.
“This is not a cabinet-style government,” Caven said. “While we thought Mr. Montford was a highly qualified individual, we felt Francisco Cigarroa was the best choice.”
Caven, who was Perry’s state finance chairman for several years, described himself as neutral in the gubernatorial primary race between Perry and Hutchison.
Rowling, a former Perry supporter who is backing Hutchison in the primary, also said Perry was entitled to weigh in on the chancellor selection.
“He called me and expressed his view that John Montford was the best candidate for the job,” Rowling said. “I think that’s fine. We were his appointees, and I do and I did respect his opinion.
“The thing I didn’t respect was the public slant they put on it where his spokespeople said he wasn’t trying to have a say-so on it and yet he did try to have a say-so on it.”
Perry’s staff downplayed his role in the chancellor selection in December and did so again Tuesday, when spokeswoman Katherine Cesinger said, “I am not privy to the governor’s private conversations, but the selection of the chancellor was a board decision.”
It’s “perfectly appropriate” for a governor to weigh in as regents or trustees consider major decisions, said Anne Neal, president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, a nonprofit organization based in Washington.
“It is, after all, the governor who will be accountable for the success or failure of his appointees,” Neal said. “That said, the trustees ultimately are responsible. It’s their responsibility to take input from all sides and decide what’s best for the institution and the public interest. It sounds like that’s what happened in this case.”