Texas Tech’s #RegentGate and the Question that Lingers: Part 1
IT ONLY LASTED five minutes.
Those five minutes were preceded by an executive session that lasted “a very long time,” sources very close to events say. The Texas Tech Board of Regents began with a typical annual contract review that slowly and gradually turned into an informal confidence vote. Guided by general counsel, so as to not take votes in violation of opening meetings laws, each of regents said his piece.
Keeping tally in their minds, the outcome was 5-4 no-confidence for the employee whose contract ran through July 2019.
Then Chancellor Robert Duncan— a storied West Texas lawmaker, as quiet as he was very effective in representing his region for 25 years, then leading the helm of his alma mater for four years thereafter— was summoned to the room. [Update: Documents obtained days after this piece was posted proved sources correct., read more here.]
Five minutes later, Duncan’s career came to an end.
The West Texas Gentleman was forced to retire or chose to resign. Sources who’ve watched events unfold believe it was the former.
For a full week, there was no explanation from the regents, most of whom descend upon Lubbock from far-off places, east of Interstate 35. All of whom, compared to the now-retiring chancellor, would look like a drunk man trying to get his key in a keyhole when attempting to open doors for Tech and the region.
There wasn’t even a shred of credible justification. Only a rumor of “misappropriation of funds” from the state’s shadiest political group. The night of Duncan’s retirement announcement, the rumor was legitimized when it was inexplicably cited by Regent John Steinmetz, who presumably spoke with formal approval of and on behalf of the BOR in keeping with Regents’ Rules 01.02.9(c)(3), so as not to violate open meetings laws. Steinmetz, along with his fellow regent and bank board chairman Mickey Long, is caught up in Lubbock’s other raging scandal. [Notably, Regent Chris Huckabee, according to records, owns “10,000 or more” shares of the same bank, which, in partnership with the Steinmetz and Long relationship might violate both 03.01(c) and 03.01(d). More on this in Part 2.]
#RegentGate raged a week before BOR Chair Rick Francis, who’s been on the BOR since 2003 and is up for reappointment in January, penned in the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal that budgetary disagreements effectively led Duncan, to suddenly, take his toys and go home.
It’s difficult to believe that a 15-year member and eventual chair of Texas Senate Finance, who’s dealt with the numbers and politics of vastly more vexing state budgets, refused to make Tech’s budget work. Especially the TTU Systems portion, which is 1-percent of the total budget.
But it’s even more difficult to believe Francis’ account, given that it came from a significant political donor and board chair who finally spoke up in print on the day before regent-appointing Abbott was to arrive in Lubbock. [Speaking of numbers, overviewing Francis’s financial disclosures, and the lack of disclosure therein, one can logically deduce that he’s either not a numbers wonk or that he’s too good with numbers. This, too, will be covered in Part 2.]
After Francis’ op-ed, one question still remained: What happened in those five minutes? Given that the minutes occurred in executive session, barring investigation, we’ll likely never get firm answers from an attributable source.
There have been minor skirmishes between Duncan, who’s long been his own boss, and the BOR since he arrived in July 2014. But I’m told the budgetary tensions about which Francis opined began in December 2016, one year after Tech announced its pursuit of a large-animal veterinarian school, and one month prior to the convening of the 85th Texas Legislature.
It was then that multiple insiders say Daniel Hodge, Abbott’s chief of staff, directed the regents to pick between an already well-funded dental school project in Francis’ El Paso or pursuit of a vet school in Amarillo. Tech wouldn’t be getting both, the governor’s man told them. Furthermore, the regents were directed to give a consensus statement— without Abbott’s name anywhere on it.
That statement did come, and, to much public surprise, the vet school was put “on pause.”
But tensions heightened when Tech walked away from the legislative session in July 2017 with a $4 million appropriation— for a vet school that was supposedly on pause. [Note: The backstory on how the $4 million came about is well detailed here. And for my account on how Duncan had whooped A&M Chancellor John Sharp procedurally and politically from 2015 through summer 2018, check this out.]
It was at this point, summer 2017, that sources say Francis, some also some also say Steinmetz, became increasingly hostile. Both of whom were members of previous boards that approved the $27.5 million Systems building Taj Mahal, a vote that occurred before Duncan’s arrival, a building that presented new overhead costs for which Duncan would later be responsible. But suddenly the two, especially Francis, were budget hawks.
A correlation to the vet school appropriation seemed to become an increasing determination to produce flat budgets year-to-year, particularly within the Systems budget, to which was added the new building’s overhead, as well as cost of administration for new campus components. This, I’m told was an intentional effort to squeeze Duncan. There’ve been plenty of news stories since Retirement Night (August 10, 2018) citing increasing budget strife between Duncan and regents, which might lead one to believe problems arose recently. But sources remain firm that the origins of escalating strife began in July 2017.
Back to the present. I’ve never seen more widespread bi-partisan outrage over an issue in Lubbock than Bob Duncan’s ousting. And I’ve definitely never seen Lubbock brass stand up to the governor. This speaks to Duncan’s reputation and character, which spans a public perception scope of venerated to hard-not-to-like. Regents from way out yonder underestimated the blowback of a region that has, by-in-large, voted for and trusted Duncan for nearly three decades.
It also speaks to West Texan understanding that there must come a time to stand, even if it hare-lips the governor, or whomever else. It presents a great many problems for the region to not to have someone with Duncan’s Austin prowess in command at Tech when the next legislative session begins in January. How did Duncan go from, as I’m told, leasing an apartment in Austin for the next session to abruptly retiring?
It’s a simple question: “What happened in those five minutes?” And when a simple question can’t be answered, very difficult questions arise.
Coming up in Part 2, we’ll overview documents and pose new questions.
Questions that might provide answers to what prompted five of the most significant minutes in Texas Tech’s history.
Jay Leeson is the founder of Other Side of Texas. You can hear the radio program by the same name each weekday 5-6pm CST on AM 580 Lubbock, streaming OtherSideofTexas.com. Each episode is posted as a podcast, subscribe at Apple podcasts.