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John Sharp skunks Gov. Rick Perry in battle to appoint Texas A&M interim leader

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On Dec. 14, 2013, the news was released at 12:44 p.m. that Texas A&M's new interim president would be none other than Dr. Mark Hussey, as tweeted by reporter Reeve Hamilton, who covers state higher education and politics for the Texas Tribune, based in Austin, Texas. The Texas Tribune team is respected and recognized as having a far keener pulse on what's happening locally in Aggieland than many insiders here do. Also of note is Hussey's annual salary of $425,000 and a start date of Jan. 14, 2014. Nice work if you can get it.

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Far from being a standard appointment occurrence in Texas A&M's routine governance, the relevance of this naming of a formal place-holder for Aggie President has long-range and far-reaching ramifications. It's a question of who is actually running Texas A&M these days. From the looks of things, clearly, it's former gubernatorial hopeful and current Texas A&M Chancellor, John Spencer Sharp '72.

Today's announcement appears to leave Texas Governor Rick Perry '72 out in the cold, having not had his way with the interim appointment of yet another of his trusted colleagues for a high-dollar job. Based on past history, that won't sit well in Austin.

Hussey also was noted to state that he "would not be a candidate for president," so he is the official "place holder" for the position not-yet-officially exited by current Aggie President Dr. R. Bowen Loftin, who announced on Jul. 12, 2013, his intent to formally step down in Jan. 2014.

Reeve Hamilton also tweeted that the vote of Texas A&M's Board of Regents was unanimous, an even more relevant fact, given the fact that the behind-the-scenes high-stakes political wrangling was fast and furious as recently as yesterday when Allen Reed, the Bryan-College Station Eagle reporter with the higher ed beat, blew the lid off the pot about the rift, or difference of opinions, between Sharp and Perry as to who should be the interim leader and when that should be announced.

The stew had gone past simmering and had almost reached a boiling point between faculty and the wishes of Perry, the Texas governor whose overarching meddling and interference in campus leadership directions and decisions, known as "taking a close interest in all things Aggie," has done more to engender animosity among faculty, staff, and students in recent years, more than any other key Texas leader in at least four decades.

Many have feared the rumor true that Gov. Perry had intent and hopes of returning to his alma mater in a major leadership capacity, should his likely return bid for U.S. President go south after already having announced his intent to not run again for Texas Governor.

In Reed's Eagle story on Dec. 13, 2013, "Sources say Texas A&M officials split over proposed interim leaders," just yesterday the general public was first introduced to the battle over who should next be the Interim President of Texas A&M. Reed reported it was Rick Perry's political ally, Guy Diedrich, who was the governor's choice as Interim President. Diedrich is presently the TAMU System Vice Chancellor for Strategic Initiatives. The general public is unaware of the scope of duties encompassed under the umbrella of Strategic Initiatives. But that's for another time.

Also at stake was whether the timing was appropriate to name an interim leader for Texas A&M, when Dr. Loftin was still in place for another month, presiding over and serving as guest speaker for this weekend's Aggie fall graduation ceremonies.

However, while Chancellor Sharp was busy admiring the borrowed/donated Christmas light display resplendent on his front lawn, with shuttle buses offered to take students, townies, and faculty out to a place they're never invited, to see this awesome excellence in illumination, Dr. R. Bowen Loftin still had one more rabbit to pull out of his hat.

Just 10 days ago, when everyone thought Dr. Loftin was going to quietly exit the position he'd been squeezed out of, to "return to teaching and service and to spend more time with family," oft-used in the whack-a-mole game of university politics when someone has been urged to resign, Loftin pulled a fast one. On Dec. 4, 2013, Dr. Loftin announced that he was accepting the position of Chancellor at the University of Missouri's Columbia campus.

It was so quiet around the Regents' (virtual) table and Chancellor Sharp's office that you could have heard a pin drop. No one there had probably cared to contemplate what Dr. Loftin might do "next," because they incorrectly considered his position a fait accompli. After all, the Aggies had a bowl game coming up and a Kyle Field expansion to keep rolling and a Heisman candidate in New York awaiting some news. Busy, busy, and then last week's announcement by Loftin.

So, in the quid pro quo game of higher education's low-stakes, high-profile politics, it was time to pull the rug out from Loftin again and name his successor without waiting a few more weeks. That's not really a faux pas, educationally speaking, but it was indeed a hurry-up, rush to see where the power struggle would come to the forefront. Turns out it was on the front page of yesterday's Eagle.

Things got a little messy around campus when "rumors" leaked that Gov. Perry favored Guy Diedrich, and the ordinarily "no-leaks-or-else" office of the Chancellor let it be known that Sharp's boy would be Dr. Mark Hussey. With no disrespect to Vice-Chancellor and Dean Hussey, he's got everything it takes to handle the interim spot, plus he's willing to devote extraordinary hours of service to the position, as few people realize exactly what it takes to step into a 24-7 hot box of daily decisions, many of which are far from easy.

Amusingly, there had long been a rumor that Chancellor Sharp would assume the position as Interim President. Many believed it would be pitched as a cost-savings measure to run the system and university, and so his empire would be complete.

It's not that far-fetched a rumor or concept, since Sharp has single-handedly waved the banner of "cost savings" and changed the landscape of Texas A&M's leadership, earning him as many detractors as admirers, despite his clear devotion to and love for his alma mater.

Sharp's reportedly (not rumored, but whispered with emotional intent) heavy-handed and ruthless leadership style has created an environment of fear and a grey-lined cloud of low morale at Texas A&M, moreso now than in recent years.

Recognizing that things won't change and seeing things not changing likely makes the average faculty member sigh, loudly, at the futility of having studied for credentials, worked for grants, and sacrificed innumerable hours to teach students (remember that teaching-research-service mission thing?) only to have their future swinging in a king-size Texas political breeze.

Faculty need one of the brotherhood (an academic, and preferably the brotherhood rather than a qualified female leader) to lead them, so they say. At least a Ph.D., they urge, and now the faculty want a say in the future leadership of the school? Everyone knows that's impossible, as after all this is Texas, and how things are done in Texas. There are times when the academics are not always the most unbiased decision makers either, but the interim position begs the insistence upon trust, not rocking the boat, and understanding faculty concerns. And yet, futility aside, the storm is still brewing.

Sharp's decisions have drawn scrutiny and comment for the 27 months he's been in place. Recently, his outsourcing direction has led to accusations of smoke-and-mirrors cost savings with the "real costs" coming back out of university coffers as hidden fees for services rendered, something that has yet to be really closely reviewed. On paper, though, no one can find a reason to voice concerns over theoretically saving money. Except the people whose jobs or benefits were impacted in one fell swoop one day.

Sharp's exacting and definitive leadership style is perfect for the state of Texas, as he has a longstanding record of leadership and effective accomplishments on the State Railroad Commission and as former Comptroller of the State of Texas. But is it really right for Texas A&M? Gov. Perry may be asking himself that very question this afternoon, particularly since this was another loss on the scoreboard, as the dynamic duo had thrusted-and-parried before, once again in favor of Sharp.

With a no-nonsense, devil-may-care attitude of aplomb, Sharp had only been on the job two weeks as System Chancellor when he fired former A&M System Deputy Chancellor Jay Kimbrough, "a good friend of Gov. Rick Perry." Many have forgotten after two years that it was further reported in the same Eagle story that Kimbrough "pulled out a pocketknife in the presence of two System lawyers," in his notice of dismissal meeting in Sept. 2011.

Sharp was not present for Kimbrough's dismissal, but had sent an e-mail to system employees, stating: "I have decided that the position of Deputy Chancellor is not necessary to meet the needs of the Office of the Chancellor and The Texas A&M University System." It was interesting to see that Sharp's will had prevailed over Perry's appointment of a good friend. One sentence, one e-mail to employees. Bada bing, bada boom. Wise decision.

As a student of the grand icon of Texas politics, Sen. W. T. Bill Moore '40, affectionately known as the "Bull of the Brazos," John Sharp learned from the master how to wheel and deal through political obstacles to effect a greater good, in his mind, for the people of the state of Texas.

Sharp's loyalty and admiration for Moore and family has extended over 40 years now, and most recently culminated on October 18, 2013, as the Texas A&M System renamed its headquarters building, formerly the John B. Connally building, as the "Moore-Connally Building."

John B. Connally, of course, served as Texas Governor from 1963-1969. His name came up again in the news in November, as it was 50 years ago that Governor Connally sat in the seat in front of U.S. President John F. Kennedy. Gov. Connally was injured in the assassination attack that ultimately took the life of President Kennedy. Further, he was fortunate to receive immediate medical treatment by Texas A&M distinguished alumnus Dr. Red Duke, who was at Parkland Hospital at the time.

The Texas A&M System had purchased the vacant building on College Station's Tarrow Drive, turned it into TAMU System Headquarters, and officially named it the John B. Connally Building in 1994. Nine years is perhaps not a long time to keep a building name, when others on campus have held onto honorific names five to six times longer at least, but if you're a sharp agent of change, nine years is, well, 63 in dog years.

There's no question that Sen. Bill Moore--who pushed, insisted, and bullied for the right to admit women into Texas A&M (a hero), who made the state senate vote the "right" way--has long been deserving of having a building named in his honor. The point is that Sharp renamed one in sharing fashion, with the newer name first, was, well, because he had the power to do so. He can literally do whatever he wants on the campus of Texas A&M University and across the institutions under the system flagship. That's either a carte blanche blanket missive from the governor of Texas to Sharp, or something else.

Whatever it is is therefore emblematic of an incredible amount of power entrusted to one individual, without too many checks and balances, except by the TAMU Board of Regents, who serve at the pleasure of, oh wait, Governor Perry.

What Sharp might possibly fail to realize is that "this" is Texas A&M University and System and not the State of Texas. Could it be that Chancellor Sharp's full skills are not being best served at Texas A&M? Many would argue that he'd be a far better governor than Rick Perry. Sharp can get things done, and it would appear that Gov. Perry has slipped a few notches on the scale of "get 'er done" in completing items on his personal checklist. At least he got skunked on this one (more) today.

But whenever Gov. Rick Perry insists on appointing his closest friends, colleagues and allies to the Board of Regents of Texas A&M University, he does so, presumably expecting them to be receptive to his suggestions, considered by some as dictates, and he expects loyalty or else, well, you know.

Allen Reed's Eagle story reported that Perry wanted Diedrich and Sharp wanted Hussey as the next university interim heir apparent and placeholder. But there was something hinky in the mix. Hussey is a Ph.D., a dean and a bona fide academic, who understands the need for Distinguished Professors to be heard, and to have the parking spaces closest to their buildings. Diedrich was...not. He was just a political appointee whose success rate over at the System Initiatives corral was sort of iffy.

Diedrich had his detractors, but his number one champion, reportedly, remained Governor Perry. The Eagle carried the following official statement by Perry spokeswoman Lucy Nashed,

While the decision is ultimately up to the chancellor and board of regents, the governor believes Guy Diedrich is a qualified candidate with a vision for the future of Texas A&M," Nashed said.

So, there was every reason to expect the arm-wrestling match to resolve in favor of Diedrich, vision and all that being a major impetus for the school's path forward.

Bravely, possibly in behalf of the governor's team, one regent, Anthony Buzbee, stepped forward to call for a formal board meeting, "after learning that the system was going to leak to the press on Wednesday that Hussey would be named interim president."

It's not that Buzbee was smart enough to call for a meeting because "the nomination needed to be thoroughly vetted by the regents with a robust dialogue on any and all candidates." It's that the regents learned the "system" (i.e., Sharp) was going to pull a coup and leak Hussey's name as the Interim President. You could hardly expect the Regents to make the Chancellor lose face and retract the name as a viable candidate, once the cat was out of the bag. The meeting was the governor's way of intimating, "nothing is a done deal yet. Proceed with caution. I have a candidate in play here." Or something close to that effect.

Dr. B. Don Russell, Chairman of Texas A&M's Distinguished Professors, bravely proffered (for Team Sharp) that Diedrich lacked the scholarly credentials to serve as Interim President, particularly in light of the news, that Sharp had picked Hussey.

The definitive fact was Russell's statement, "Dean Mark Hussey, over two weeks ago, was selected by Chancellor Sharp to be his nominee for interim president," Russell said. "That rumor was well-received. Mark Hussey is willing to serve in that role. That is who the chancellor is going to recommend on Saturday."

That's very relevant as to how out of touch that the Aggie Board of Regents just might be with what's happening inside the newly renamed Moore-Connally building on College Station's Tarrow Street. If it was known two weeks ago among the most prestigious of the university's professors that Hussey was TAMU Chancellor John Sharp's first choice, then why didn't the regents, or the governor, know then, too?

With the exception of Dr. Bowen Loftin, who was both Interim and finally named as President of Texas A&M, the interim president typically is not a candidate for the full-time job and only serves for whatever time is required, before the official Search Committee finalizes its work to identify and conduct due diligence on their candidates to take over the top spot.

Hussey is presently the TAMU System Vice Chancellor and A&M Dean of the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences. Theoretically, at first blush, there's not much to distinguish the talents and abilities of either of these two individuals who are, on the formal organizational chart, about equals, as people who ultimately report to Chancellor John Sharp, who serves at the pleasure of the TAMU Board of Regents.

The battle came down to: one is the guy Sharp wants, one is the guy Perry wants. Sharp won, game over. Or is it? For now and for the next year, Rick Perry '72 is the Governor of the State of Texas. For now and for as long as the Texas A&M Board of Regents decides, John Sharp '72 is Chancellor of the Texas A&M System.

Today's unanimous vote of the Board of Regents to choose Vice Chancellor and Agrilife Dean Mark Hussey as Interim President of Texas A&M University is a statement that speaks more loudly than does the naming of Hussey. It is a statement to the governor that the Chancellor is in charge of Texas A&M and what he says goes. If Perry thought he had some votes for Diedrich, looks like that didn't work out for him so well.

The former Student Body President (Sharp) has officially shown the former TAMU Yell Leader (Perry) which way the wind is blowing around College Station. One can only wonder if a storm will be brewing soon in Austin.

Meanwhile, Mack Brown announced last night at the UT football team banquet that he looks forward to working with everyone again next year at the University of Texas, and just Thurs, Dec. 12, 2013, the Dallas Morning News reported that Powers would "remain university president" at UT Austin, the other flagship school in the state. So many problems for the governor to deal with, so little time.

Higher education, it would seem, is taking up so much time that the governor has overlooked the report of the Texas Legislative Study Group, as reported by the Texas Observer Apr. 16, 2013. Their report? Texas "ranked 44th in high school graduation rates" and "47th in SAT scores."

Not to worry, though, contract negotiations appear resolved to retain Aggie Head Coach Kevin Sumlin, and "ol' Mack is back in town" for UT, and there's the same old President at UT-Austin, and only the governor fumbled the ball on Interim President at his alma mater. The battle of the Brazos continues. Game on.

Update: Two hours after this story was first published, the University of Texas head football coach Mack Brown announced his intent to step down following their final bowl appearance, just 24 hours after announcing at the team's annual football banquet that he looked forward to working with everyone next year. That's just how quickly anything can change when it comes to higher education in the state of Texas.

Football coaches can change overnight. Contracts can be amended. University system regents can decide to give up appointments sooner than expected. Just as quickly, leadership in Texas higher education can change in the blink of an eye.

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