EDINBURG — The Monitor has learned the identities of four of the five remaining candidates to become the inaugural president of the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley amid criticism by UT-Pan American faculty that the hiring process was operating without enough input from key constituencies.
The UT System declined to confirm or deny the identities of the following candidates, whose identities The Monitor learned last week: UTPA President Robert Nelsen, Georgia Regents University President Ricardo Azziz, former University of Alabama President Guy Bailey and former Secretary of the Army Louis Caldera. The fifth candidate remains unidentified.
UTPA’s faculty senate passed a resolution earlier this month asking UT System Chancellor Dr. Francisco Cigarroa, Vice Chancellor Pedro Reyes and the UT Board of Regents to allow faculty from UTPA and UT Brownsville, as well as other stakeholders, to meet more than one finalist for the position.
The “selection process should be done with utmost transparency and opportunity for input from faculty, staff, students, administrators, alumni, community leaders and others concerned with the future success of the university,” a portion of the resolution stated.
The move was a reaction to news the candidates would not make appearances at UTPA or UTB prior to the UT Board of Regents officially naming a finalist or finalists for the position. Naming finalists makes public their identities, but the board has the power to name a single finalist, thereby designating the person who got the job without revealing any competitors.
In a news release earlier this month, the UT System public affairs office explained the strategy — which was employed in recent presidential searches at UT Arlington, UT Health Science Center - Houston and UT MD Anderson — as a way to better attract top-tier talent.
"Names of candidates are kept confidential to attract the absolute highest quality of candidates," the release read. "Executive search firms advise that top candidates are reluctant to pursue a position without a promise of confidentiality, as it may jeopardize their current positions."
To further protest, the faculty senate declined a chance to appoint three faculty members to be part of the selection process. The appointees would be sworn to secrecy and unable to elicit opinion from fellow faculty members. The senate also found the inclusion of three more faculty members didn’t assuage its concerns with the overall process.
“The senate didn’t want to (legitimize) a process that wasn’t open,” said Thomas White, the chair of the faculty senate.
After UTPA President Robert Nelsen and his predecessor, Blandina "Bambi" Cárdenas, made open campus visits prior to their hirings, faculty members have become accustomed to meeting their leaders before their hiring.
“We’ve had all this emphasis on community involvement,” said Dora Saavedra, a member of the UTPA faculty senate. “It seems very odd that the inclusivity will be discontinued, or seems that it will be discontinued with the new university.”
Rather than allowing unfettered access to faculty, staff, students and others during open campus visits, the UT System chose to include representatives of those constituencies on the 24-person search committee responsible for making a recommendation on hiring to the Board of Regents. Two members of the faculty from each of the two current UT schools that will compose UT-RGV serve on the committee. The regents have ultimate hiring authority and expect to announce a new president this spring.
White is one of the UTPA faculty representatives on the search committee. The other is Marie Mora, a professor of economics.
The faculty senate was not just miffed, though, about not having a say in the hiring. Both White and Saavedra said they understood the final authority rested with the Board of Regents. Rather, Saavedra said, regents were missing the opportunity to gain perspective from faculty members, and the candidates themselves might appreciate learning about the people they’d work with.
“I think they would appreciate the opportunity to meet some of their constituencies,” Saavedra said.
Nelsen, who is a candidate for UT-RGV president, said he understood the faculty senate’s position, but thought the faculty was represented on the search committee.
“The faculty senate has to do what it thinks it needs to do,” he said Monday.
For such an important job, though, and with the field down to five, the candidates deserve more scrutiny, Saavedra said.
“If you’re a finalist and you throw your hat in the ring, then you should expect people to want to know,” she said.
AND THE NOMINEES ARE …
Despite the secrecy surrounding the identities of the final five candidates, last week The Monitor learned four of them.
Monitor Editor Carlos Sanchez was given the names of four of the five remaining candidates by one source familiar with the search process. Sanchez then confirmed those names with two more sources familiar with the process. They are Nelsen, UTPA president; Ricardo Azziz, Georgia Regents University president; Guy Bailey, former University of Alabama president; and Louis Caldera, former secretary of the Army.
Cigarroa contacted Sanchez on Monday, asking not to publish the names, as the UT System had promised to protect candidates’ identities and making them public could negatively impact the hiring. But the editor decided public interest in identifying the candidates — thus allowing a public vetting — trumped UT System’s desire to keep the process hushed.
“I’ve carefully considered the chancellor’s request,” Sanchez said. “And because The Monitor is not bound by UT System’s pledge of confidentiality, and because I strongly believe this information is beneficial to the public, I’ve decided to publish the names that we know.”
Nelsen, 62, has consistently said he would like to continue as president of the new university. UTB President Juliet Garcia announced earlier this month she would not seek the job.
Considering the other candidates lack of opportunities to meet with university stakeholders, Nelsen’s familiarity could cut both ways, Saavedra said.
“I can see it both helping and hurting Dr. Nelsen,” she said.
Some at UTB have expressed reservations about choosing someone so closely associated with the UTPA campus as the leader of the merged university, she said. But at the same time, Nelsen is already seen as a leader in the community.
Caldera, 57, served in the Clinton Administration as the Secretary of the Army from 1998 to 2001. He was president of the University of New Mexico from 2003 to 2006.
In 2009, President Barack Obama named Caldera director of the White House Military Office, but he lasted only a few months in the position. He resigned within two weeks of authorizing a low-altitude flyover by Air Force One and two fighter jets over New York City, a photo op that backfired as it frightened residents of the nation’s biggest city of another airplane-borne terrorist attack.
Reached at his business office in a Washington, D.C. suburb, Caldera declined to comment on his candidacy, citing the selection process’s confidentiality.
“I don’t have anything to say about the process. It’s a confidential process,” he said.
In addition to serving as GRU president, Azziz is also CEO of the affiliated Georgia Regents Health System. He was born in Uruguay and entered medical school at the age of 19, according to a 2010 report in an alumni publication of Penn State College of Medicine, Azziz’s alma mater. He presided over the merger of Georgia Health Sciences University and Augusta State University in 2013.
Azziz did not respond to phone or email messages Monday.
Bailey, an Alabama native and University of Alabama alumnus, resigned the presidency of that school in October 2012 after less than two months on the job. He cited his wife’s health issues as the reason for his resignation. His wife, Jan Tillery-Bailey died in September. The specifics of the disease that caused her death have not been released.
Bailey previously served as president of Texas Tech University from 2008 to 2012. Tillery-Bailey grew up in Lubbock and graduated from Texas Tech, the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal reported when Bailey took the job at Texas Tech. Earlier in his career, Bailey served as provost of UT San Antonio.
Bailey did not respond to an email requesting comment Monday.
Although UTPA faculty members have not approved of the hiring process thus far, White, Saavedra and Nelsen all expressed optimism the university community would embrace whoever is ultimately chosen as president.
“I would hope they would give whoever it is a fair chance, and I certainly would expect them to,” White said.