AUSTIN - (The Texas Tribune) On the afternoon before the Texas A&M System Board met to select an interim president - a selection that found Gov. Rick Perry backing one candidate and Chancellor John Sharp backing another - Perry contacted regents with a proposal for a new position "on par with [the] chancellor."
For its title, the governor suggested "Executive President (Director) of the Board of Regents or President of the Office of the Executive Board of Regents (or something similar)."
The context in which the memo - which was obtained by the Tribune - was sent is telling. Perry had been pushing the board to name Guy Diedrich, the system's former top lobbyist, to the interim position. Sharp wanted Mark Hussey, the university's agriculture and life sciences dean, for the job. Following a push from faculty for an interim president with an academic background, the regents went with Hussey.
In the subject line of his email, Perry described the position as "an option for Guy."
The idea certainly grabbed the attention board's chairman, Phil Adams of Bryan and College Station. He forwarded the governor's memo to Cliff Thomas, a fellow regent from Victoria, with a note saying, "WOW!"
The creation of the proposed executive director position was not on the meeting's agenda at their Saturday meeting and was not discussed. There have also been no indications when, if ever, it will come up for a vote.
But Perry wrote, "From a regents perspective, this should make abundant good sense as the flow of information seems to be a major source of discontent."
The new adviser, as he envisioned the job, would help implement the board's strategic vision. The person would advise the regents on key policies and facilitate communications between the board and the campus community. He or she would report only to the board, would have a separate budget and would be "on par with [the] Chancellor."
A spokesman for the system said that Diedrich has told the "system leadership" he does not want the proposed job.
"I am not aware of any position that has been created," Diedrich wrote in an email to the Tribune. "I am the Vice Chancellor for Strategic Initiatives and will continue to work with the Board of Regents, Chancellor, our Presidents and outstanding faculty to develop projects that support the research and teaching missions at our universities and agencies."
Charles Schwartz, an A&M regent from Houston, said he was supportive of general aspects of Perry's proposal, but did not know if or how it would be implemented, since it had not been deliberated by the board.
"Facilitating open communications is a desirable thing," he said. "If there's a person or persons who can help us facilitate that, I'm all for it."
But some observers are wary. Jenifer Sarver, a spokeswoman for the Texas Coalition for Excellence in Higher Education, which formed in 2011 in opposition to proposals Perry was pushing boards of regents to implement, said via email, "Additional bureaucracy at the System isn't an efficient or effective use of taxpayer dollars, and this seems suspiciously familiar to the failed experiment that was Rick O'Donnell's hiring at the [University of Texas] System in 2011."
O'Donnell, who had ties to the architects of Perry's controversial higher ed reform effort, was unilaterally hired as a special adviser to the UT board by then-chairman Gene Powell in 2011. It set off significant turmoil, which has yet to settle, though O'Donnell himself was fired after less than three months.
"This has the appearance of being an end-run around Chancellor Sharp," Sarver said, echoing concerns about what O'Donnell's hiring meant for UT Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa in 2011. If that were the motivation, she said, "it would be tantamount to petty political payback over the recent disagreement he had with the governor about who would be Texas A&M's interim president."
Schwartz said he was only vaguely aware of the O'Donnell situation, but did not believe the governor's recent recommendation was analogous to it. "When I read the memo," he said, "that is not something that ever crossed my mind."
Sharp declined to comment, though he previously ran afoul of a board adviser with strong Perry ties. When he was named chancellor, Jay Kimbrough had served in such a position, which also didn't report to the chancellor. He became deputy chancellor, but Sharp decided his position wasn't necessary and eliminated it, firing Kimbrough - a close associate of Perry's - in the process.