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In Cigarroa's Wake, Major Gains and Significant Discord

Francisco Cigarroa's improbable tenure as chancellor of the University of Texas System was as notable for its achievement as it was for its discord. In some ways, his arrival was more surprising than his departure.

Barbara Cigarroa was not surprised when her eldest son, Francisco, announced in February that he would step down as chancellor of the University of Texas System after five years on the job.

“I know it may have surprised some people,” she said in a telephone interview from her home in Laredo. “But he accomplished what he wanted to there, and he never had a doubt of what he wanted to be.”

Since he was a boy, she said, her son had his sights set on a medical career like that of his father — who is still a practicing physician — and grandfather. And Francisco Cigarroa, a surgeon, will resume that career full time. Once his successor is installed later this year, Cigarroa, 56, will become the head of the pediatric transplant surgery unit at the UT Health Science Center at San Antonio, where he previously served as president for eight years.

Though Gov. Rick Perry preferred someone else, the university system’s Board of Regents appointed Cigarroa as chancellor in 2009, making him the first Hispanic to lead a major public university system. Cigarroa accepted the post with his family’s encouragement, and despite his personal reservations: “They say it’s very political, and I hate meetings,” he recalled telling his father. Thus began an improbable tenure that was as notable for its achievement as it was for its discord.

“I would say that I’ve been one of the most nontraditional choices ever for chancellor,” Cigarroa said. “But I must admit, it has been a great ride.”

Since becoming chancellor, Cigarroa has laid out a nationally heralded framework for the system’s future. Two new UT medical schools are being built, and a new university is being formed in South Texas, allowing the underserved region access to the system’s endowment it has historically been denied.

Of his South Texas initiatives, he said, “Twenty or 30 years from now, I’ll probably think of that as one of those incredible highlights. It’s almost miraculous that we got it done.”

But since early 2011, Cigarroa has often found himself in the middle of disputes surrounding the system and its Board of Regents. Most recently, a legislative committee has been investigating and considering recommending the impeachment of a regent, Wallace L. Hall Jr. of Dallas, who has been accused of overstepping his authority in investigating Bill Powers, the president of the University of Texas at Austin. While some lawmakers and even a fellow regent have accused Hall of being on a “witch hunt,” his lawyers have said that his duty as a regent necessitated looking into financial practices and admissions procedures he considered suspicious.

In a December meeting, the board’s agenda called for Cigarroa to make a recommendation on Powers’ employment. Though he noted that his relationship with Powers was strained, Cigarroa recommended that the president retain his position.

“I always give my honest recommendation,” Cigarroa said later, “because at the end of the day, I have to sleep with myself.”

An email in February by Paul Foster, the chairman of the board, indicated that this and other disagreements could have caused some regents to sour on the chancellor.

Foster, referring to internal messages from Hall, wrote to Cigarroa, “I absolutely do not agree with his tactics in trying to pressure you into taking an action that you do not feel is in the best interests of UT-Austin or of the UT System. It is clear what he hopes to accomplish, but to disparage your reputation in the process is neither fair nor is it appropriate.”

Neither Hall nor Foster responded to requests for comment for this article.

Cigarroa said his decision to leave was based more on a feeling that he had accomplished his goals, including the establishment of a medical school in Austin and expansion of the system’s presence in South Texas, than any internal pressure. He will remain an adviser to the system’s nascent university in the Lower Rio Grande Valley.

“Do I wish I could eliminate tensions between UT-Austin and the system and the Legislature and the board?” Cigarroa asked. “Yeah. But we’ve been able to move the ball forward. I don’t think there’s ever going to be a day when there’s not some tension. It’s a huge system, and there’s going to be people who want something.”

The current regents’ squabbles have been more than typical disagreements. James R. Huffines, a former board chairman who left in 2010, said recently, “There’s no question that the board of regents has been more divided than almost any time in history, and that history is 130-plus years.”

But of the chancellor, Huffines said: “I think he deserves credit for pushing through the turmoil. He exceeded my expectations, and I set the bar pretty high.”

Asked if he would have done anything differently in the last five years, Cigarroa could come up with only one thing. In 2012, security concerns prompted him to initially cancel a high-profile boxing match at the University of Texas at El Paso, prompting backlash from local politicians and community leaders.

Cigarroa said he should have flown to El Paso and held meetings before issuing his decision. “If I had done that, it might not have been as dramatic,” he said. “But at the end of the day, it ended up at the right place.”

He ultimately allowed the show to go on but with a special ban on alcohol consumption and added assurances from law enforcement officials and university administrators that the risk had been minimized.

Cigarroa credits the countless hours he logged in emergency surgery, which he has continued to perform as chancellor, with giving him the discipline to stay focused on his objectives at his university system post. “You have to be comfortable in an environment of tension,” he said.

But his ability to navigate politically choppy waters was probably developed much earlier, when he was one of 10 Cigarroa children growing up in Laredo.

“His thinking has always been,” his 77-year-old mother said, “you really don’t accomplish anything by being negative or showing negative feelings. You try and be above the fray and be calm. Many things you keep to yourself, and you treat everybody with utmost respect.”

Disclosure: The University of Texas at Austin and the University of Texas at El Paso are corporate sponsors of The Texas Tribune. Paul Foster is a major donor to The Texas Tribune. And James Huffines is president of PlainsCapital Bank, which was a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune in 2012 and 2011. (You can also review the full list of Tribune donors and sponsors below $1,000.) 

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at http://www.texastribune.org/2014/03/23/cigarroas-wake-significant-gains-and-discord/.

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