#RegentGate: Inside Rick Francis’ decision to oust Robert Duncan

Rick Francis had a choice to make in the weeks leading up to the ouster of Chancellor Bob Duncan’s on August 10.

It was high budget season. The board of regents chairman was deciding whether or not to sign off on multi-million dollar requests for Texas Tech’s proposed veterinarian school in Amarillo and dental school in Francis’ El Paso.

He had, it seems, three options:

SCENARIO 1: Sign off on both schools, with Duncan still around

SCENARIO 2: Refuse to sign off on both schools, with Duncan still around 

SCENARIO 3: Oust Duncan and sign off on both schools

Francis chose the third.

How he came to this choice– and why the scenarios were framed as they were– is becoming more and more clear. At least to me. Here’s my take, based on our previous reporting.

The Texas Legislature convenes in January of odd-numbered years for 140 days. In the months leading up to a legislative session, state agencies, institutions, etc. are busily preparing budgets.

If an entity wants to ask the Legislature to consider funding an item beyond its budget– items like veterinarian schools and dental schools– the entity makes an legislative appropriation request, known as an LAR.

When it comes to public universities, LARs require the signature of the regents chairman.

Francis, CEO and President of El Paso-based WestStar Bank, has somewhere between probable to certain conflicts of interests in a dental school in or near downtown El Paso. His business associates and bank board members are reported stakeholders of around $65 million in downtown El Paso properties (see our previous deep dive into Francis and his associates here). A dental school could generate nearly $100 million in annual economic impact, which is likely big business for WestStar Bank’s captain.

Over the summer of 2018, Francis was reluctant to approve LARs for the vet school and the dental school proposals. He wanted (perhaps needed) the latter but not the former.

In order to keep appearances, apparently, Francis wanted to sign off on LARs for both schools or neither of the schools— not one or the other. But how he would go about doing so was contingent on Duncan’s employment status at Tech, which presented the three scenarios.

SCENARIO 1: To sign off on both LARs, with Duncan still around pushing for both schools in the upcoming session, likely meant a threat from late 2016, just prior to the previous session, would be acted upon come January.

This threat was originally presented by Gov. Greg Abbott then-Chief of Staff Daniel Hodge, on behalf of whatever forces [note: one can now logically deduce origins from College Station]. The essence of Hodge’s threat, according to very strong sources, was this: hit the brakes on the vet school or lose the dental school. The regents soon thereafter, unanimously, decided to put the vet on pause.

Hodge is currently a paid consultant by A&M System Chancellor John Sharp’s office. To date, he’s not publicly denied our reports that he cajoled Tech regents in late 2016 (though he’s been invited to do so).

As we’ve previously reported, tensions began to run notably higher internally in the summer of 2017. Francis and BOR Finance Chairman John Steinmetz as applied greater budgetary pressure on Duncan after Tech walked away from the 2017 session with a $4.17 million appropriation for the vet school.

SCENARIO 2: To not sign off on either could be perceived as fair, albeit gutless. Both Amarillo and El Paso hopes and proposals would have sit out a session. Francis could appear play to be looking after Tech’s overall interests and not choosing favorites.

But this would only be an appearance. Francis, a slick dealer, had an ace in the hole.

In the 2017 session, a Texas Tech Health Sciences Center-El Paso request was approved for $50 million (see graphic below). The appropriation was divided into two $25 million sums for fiscal years 2018 and 2019. Moreover, the appropriation was categorized as “unexpended balance authority,” meaning unspent money can roll over.

Not signing off on either LAR, with Duncan still around, would make sense. Francis had $50 million in the kitty for the dental school through TTUHSC-El Paso. He could wait and request more in the 2021 session— after the vet school proposal had died out, along with whatever threat against the dental school.

SCENARIO 3: Ousting Duncan and approving both LARs was the chairman’s ultimate course of action. He did both in the same day. 

In ousting Duncan, and forcing his retirement before the upcoming legislative session– the contract ran past the end of the session (July 2019)– Francis relieved whatever threats existed against the dental school.

He could (and has) go on to publicly state support for the vet school, while privately leaving it to die a political death. 

Tech is to hold its State of the University on October 10, an event that might as well be titled State of the Absurdity. A large gathering of Tech supporters and officials suited up, maintaining smiles over catered food and slideshows, while privately wondering what in the world is going on. It’s difficult to drive focused policy initiatives in states of mass confusion.

In contrast, I’m told that on September 8, at the Clemson-A&M football game, Sharp’s chancellor suite hosted (read: lobbied) four members of the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board— the board through which the Tech vet school proposal will receive ultimate approval or disapproval.

UNEXPECTED CONSEQUENCES:

Amongst all the #RegentGate fallout, the most intriging occurred this week. Panhandle power players are now planning to get the dental school to Amarillo. In West Texas, it’s generally considered long-standing taboo to go messing with folks in Amarillo. And Francis has done so with the dental school. Now they’re seizing the instrument by which the chairman has long goaded them. Which they can do— and, again, why we avoid riling them up—because they’re wealthier, smarter and, frankly, crazier.

The choice made by Francis and the #RegentGate Five has yielded, and will continue to yield, consequences they hardly imagined possible a month ago.

The greatest and most pressing of which is a new choice: whether or not to resign.

 

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 at OtherSideofTexas.com. Each episode is posted as a podcast; subscribe at Apple podcasts.

RELATED:

Click here to read about the plans of Amarillo power players to move Tech’s proposed dental school to the Panhandle 

Click here to read and hear extended interview with Jerry Hodge

Click here to read about Gov. Greg Abbott’s apparent involvement with Tech’s Board of Regents from late 2016 until today

Click here to read about Tech Board Chairman Rick Francis’ financial interests in Tech’s proposed downtown El Paso

Click here to read about how documents prove Tech Chancellor Bob Duncan was forced to retire

Click here to read Texas Tech’s #RegentGate and the Questions that Linger: Part 1

Click here to read Texas Tech’s #RegentGate and the Questions that Linger: Part 2

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