Trustees | Trusteeship

Flagship bias? Longhorns, Aggies dominate UT, A&M boards of regents

AUSTIN AMERICAN-STATESMAN   |  April 13, 2018 by Ralph K.M. Haurwitz

Of the 50 people who have served on the University of Texas System Board of Regents since 1985, 41 went to the same school, UT-Austin. There are 13 other campuses in the system, but just one regent graduated from one of those schools.

Similarly, alumni of the College Station flagship have predominated on the Texas A&M University System’s governing board, which oversees 11 schools, for decades. Although the current chairman of that board didn’t go to A&M, you’d have to go back to 1997 to find another chairman who didn’t attend the flagship.

The American-Statesman documented these long-standing trends by analyzing university system records. The reason for the trends is straightforward: Democratic and Republican governors alike have tended to pick flagship graduates for the appointments, which are subject to state Senate confirmation. Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, thus far has tapped Longhorns and Aggies exclusively — six of each — for the UT and A&M boards, respectively.

As for how much the heavy reliance on flagship campus graduates matters, it depends on whom you ask. It’s clear, though, that few boards or commissions in state government rival the prestige of the UT and A&M boards, even though regent positions come with no pay.

Increasing the presence of non flagship graduates on the boards could focus more attention, and perhaps more funding, on some of those other campuses’ quest for greater excellence. There’s no doubt that many of those schools have produced graduates who could serve ably as regents. At UT-Dallas, for example, SAT and ACT scores for freshmen in fall 2016 barely trailed those of their UT-Austin counterparts, according to the latest federal data.

“The satellite institutions are clearly underrepresented on boards of regents,” said state Sen. Kel Seliger, a Republican from Amarillo who chairs the Senate Higher Education Committee. “The awareness and focus in this state is on the flagships. There’s not the broadest appreciation of some of the assets Texas has in higher education.”

Armand Alacbay, a vice president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, said: “Boards should not be monolithic in any one particular attribute. Appointment authorities like governors should look to the composition of a board holistically to ensure it has a range of backgrounds and skills.”

Diversity in race, ethnicity, gender, age and professional background are valuable on a governing board, said Robert A. Scott, author of “How University Boards Work” and a former president of Adelphi University in New York state and Ramapo College of New Jersey. “Science shows diversity of backgrounds and opinions at the decision-making table can lead to stronger decisions,” he said.

Abbott has named two Latinos to the UT board but has drawn criticism for not appointing an African-American.

Ciara Matthews, a spokeswoman for the governor, said all of the regents he has appointed “bring with them valuable knowledge, a diverse background and a keen understanding of their respective universities of higher education. Each appointee has demonstrated a commitment to preserving and promoting the legacy and excellence of their university system, and they all hail from different regions of the state, which gives them a better grasp of the issues at the campus level.”

The view from El Paso

UT-El Paso’s President Diana Natalicio said there hasn’t been a graduate of her school on the UT board since she became the university’s president 30 years ago, and she’s not aware of one earlier.

“When you’re in El Paso, at the distance we are, once in a while you feel a little outside of the loop,” Natalicio said. “It would be wonderful to see a rotation of graduates of all the institutions in the system. There are fresh perspectives that people bring inevitably. Someone who has experienced the educational opportunities that UTEP offers people in this region is going to have an authenticity that is pretty powerful.”

Nonetheless, she said, two El Pasoans — Woody Hunt, a former regent, and Paul Foster, a current one — brought a local perspective to the board and helped ensure that meaningful investments were made in her university. Former regents’ Chairman James Huffines, a UT-Austin graduate with roots in Dallas, helped line up funding for the College of Science building, she said.

Kenneth Ashworth, a former UT System vice chancellor who later served as the state’s higher education commissioner for more than 20 years, said the predominance of flagship campus graduates on the UT and A&M boards might have as much to do with the graduates’ motivations as it does with any bias on the part of governors. Over the years, many of those aspiring to be regents have donated to gubernatorial campaigns, he noted.

“I really do feel that an awful lot of people who become regents push for that appointment in part for the recognition they get from their old classmates,” Ashworth said. “This is a sign of their arrival that they were members of the Board of Regents.”

Just 3 black UT regents, ever

In addition to overseeing multiple campuses, the UT and A&M boards set multibillion-dollar budgets, establish a wide variety of policies, hire a chancellor to run the system and select presidents to lead the campuses. Regent appointments are for six-year terms unless the person is filling the unexpired term of a regent who has left the board.

Seven of the nine current UT regents have degrees from the Austin campus: David Beck, Kevin Eltife, R. Steven Hicks, Jeffery D. Hildebrand, Janiece Longoria, Rad Weaver and the chairwoman, Sara Martinez Tucker. Ernest Aliseda graduated from A&M and the University of Houston Law Center, and Paul Foster earned a degree at Baylor University.

When Abbott nominated Beck, Hicks and Tucker to the UT board in 2015, state Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, voted for all three but expressed concern about a lack of racial diversity. There have been only three African-Americans on the UT board in its history, he said, adding that he expected the governor to name an African-American during the next round of appointments.

That didn’t happen, and West, along with Sen. Borris Miles, D-Houston, abstained on the confirmation vote for Longoria, Eltife and Weaver last year, saying they had nothing personal against the trio but wanted to send a message about the importance of diversity and inclusion. Longoria is Hispanic, as are Tucker and Aliseda.

Whoever chairs a board of regents is first among equals, and the UT board has had 43 chairs since its inception in 1881. Only two attended a UT System school other than UT-Austin — Kenneth H. Aynesworth and Merton Melrose Minter, both of whom earned medical degrees from the UT Medical Branch at Galveston, the latter also earning a degree at UT-Austin.

“Regardless of the institution from which they graduated, regents serve because they are committed to dedicating their time and energies to make a material impact on higher education and health care across the entire state,” said Francie Frederick, general counsel to the UT board. “They serve and support all of the UT institutions, while holding them accountable to the taxpayers of Texas.”

Eight of the nine current A&M regents earned degrees from the College Station campus: Elaine Mendoza, Phil Adams, Robert L. Albritton, Tony Buzbee, Morris E. Foster, Tim Leach, Bill Mahomes and Cliff Thomas. The chairman, Charles W. Schwartz, earned three degrees from UT-Austin and one from Harvard Law School.

The A&M System declined to comment for this story. Like their UT counterparts, the A&M regents live in different parts of the state. For example, Mendoza, the only woman and the only Hispanic on the board, is from San Antonio and no doubt is keenly aware of issues involving the system’s campus there. Mahomes, the only African-American on the board, lives in Dallas and was on the board of East Texas State University northwest of Dallas before it became part of the system as A&M-Commerce.

In contrast with the UT and A&M boards, the board of the seven-campus Texas State University System has two alumni from each of three campuses — Lamar University, Sam Houston State University and Texas State University.

“We don’t pay a lot of attention to that; nor does it matter,” Chancellor Brian McCall said. “We have no flagship. Our Texas State graduates pay as much attention to Lamar as they do to Texas State. My main concern is that we keep getting good, quality people who are interested in higher education and doing what’s right for higher ed in our system. And, fortunately, we’ve had that.”


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