• July 22, 2014

Conservative Group's Influence on Texas Higher-Education Policy Takes Center Stage Again

Conservative Group's Influence Takes Center Stage in Texas 1

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Michael D. McKinney, shown here in an appearance last June, did not say why he was stepping down as chancellor of the Texas A&M University system, but he was reportedly under pressure for not carrying out a conservative foundation's ideas forcefully enough.

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close Conservative Group's Influence Takes Center Stage in Texas 1

AP Images

Michael D. McKinney, shown here in an appearance last June, did not say why he was stepping down as chancellor of the Texas A&M University system, but he was reportedly under pressure for not carrying out a conservative foundation's ideas forcefully enough.

The influence of a conservative movement that would apply a greater business orientation to Texas higher education came into stark relief this week, when the chancellor of one of the state's university systems unexpectedly resigned and the other seemed to push back against regents who have embraced what some call a heavy-handed ideological agenda.

Michael D. McKinney, chancellor of the Texas A&M University system, announced Tuesday that he would "step aside" July 1. Dr. McKinney's resignation comes on the heels of months of pressure from the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank whose leaders questioned Texas A&M regents in e-mails about the pace with which the chancellor was putting in place changes, including a plan to award faculty bonuses based entirely on student evaluations.

Dr. McKinney has provided no reasons for his retirement, but The Dallas Morning News, citing anonymous sources close to the chancellor, reported Wednesday that Dr. McKinney was forced out for not being "assertive" enough in carrying out the foundation's ideas, which have been embraced by Gov. Rick Perry, a Republican, and some of the regents he appointed.

The foundation's proposals haven't gained as much traction at the University of Texas as they have at Texas A&M, but recent efforts to gauge the productivity and cost-effectiveness of faculty at Texas were similar to those that roiled professors at A&M.

In a speech to the University of Texas Board of Regents on Thursday, Francisco G. Cigarroa, the system's chancellor, told board members to take a step back and let campus presidents work without interference.

"Universities simply cannot be micromanaged," said Dr. Cigarroa, a surgeon whose speech was streamed on a Webcast. "I trust my presidents. I need your support, and I need your confidence, and I need your authority to accomplish the important work ahead."

Controversial 'Solutions'

At the heart of the debate are ideas championed by Jeff Sandefer, a member of the Texas Public Policy Foundation's board of directors and a major campaign contributor to Mr. Perry.

Mr. Sandefer has been the lead proponent of a set of principles called the "Seven Breakthrough Solutions," which are billed as pillars to improve teaching and cut costs in Texas. Those proposals include creating a new accreditation system that would grade institutions on how effectively they deliver on promises to students, as well as splitting university budgets for teaching and research.

The Texas Public Policy Foundation's influence in Texas has renewed criticism that political ideology is shaping the future of higher education in the state.

Mr. Sandefer has actively promoted the foundation's proposals to the regents at Texas A&M and the University Texas, and in some quarters he appears to be warmly received. In e-mails, obtained by The Chronicle and other news- media outlets, Mr. Sandefer and his father, J.D. (Jakie) Sandefer III, expressed concerns that A&M's board, and specifically Dr. McKinney, had not acted on their proposals. When Jim Schwertner, an A&M regent, received the August 25 e-mail, he responded by saying Jeff Sandefer should "get ready to saddle up" because "we are doing a lot more than staff knows about."

Mr. Sandefer, a third-generation Texas oilman, is co-founder of the Acton School of Business, a private M.B.A. program that pays faculty members based on student evaluations and stresses teaching, not research. Asked in an e-mail Tuesday whether he had any influence in Dr. McKinney's resignation, Mr. Sandefer declined to address the question directly and said he had the "highest regard" for the departing chancellor.

"My goal in educational philanthropy has always been to ask tough questions and propose new ideas, whether it involves basic philosophies or cutting-edge curriculum," Mr. Sandefer wrote. "While I'm always willing to offer frank opinions on educational reform to anyone who asks, including leaders like Dr. McKinney, my true passion is teaching and creating curriculum at the Acton schools."

Members of Texas A&M's Board of Regents did not respond to interview requests, nor did Dr. McKinney.

Eyes on Chancellor Search at A&M

Scrutiny of political influence in higher education isn't likely to go away anytime soon in Texas, but the A&M regents have an opportunity in the search for a new chancellor to demonstrate that they intend to improve education, rather than merely make a political appointment, several faculty members said on Thursday. Dr. McKinney, a physician who previously served as Gov. Rick Perry's chief of staff, was perceived by faculty at times as too politically oriented.

Angie Hill Price, former speaker of the Faculty Senate at Texas A&M, said the selection of a chancellor who could communicate effectively with professors would go a long way toward improving relations between the system and the flagship campus.

"The faculty would very much like to be involved from a cooperative aspect, not an antagonistic aspect, with the regents," said Ms. Price, an associate professor of engineering technology.

In a letter to the regents Thursday, the Texas A&M Faculty Senate asked that the board to undertake a national search for a new chancellor, stressing that the appointee should bring an "appropriate academic background" to lead "one of the premier higher-education systems in the nation."

Peter Hugill, president of the Texas conference of the American Association of University Professors, said the next several months at Texas A&M and the University of Texas will be pivotal for higher education across the state. If the pressure being applied on both flagship institutions lead to policy changes, other regional campuses will be affected as well, said Mr. Hugill, a professor in the department of geography and the Bush School of Government and Public Service's international-affairs program at Texas A&M at College Station.

"I'm calling it the flagship wars," he said. "Because it's mainly us and UT who are getting it at the moment, but if we don't stop them now, then everybody else is in trouble."

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