- Rex Tillerson is the rumored front-runner for the soon-to-be-vacant University of Texas System chancellorship, the Wall Street Journal reports. Tillerson, who will step down as U.S. Secretary of State at the end of this month, is a University of Texas alumnus and former CEO of Exxon Mobil.
- While the system has not made a formal offer and names of finalists have not been published, Tillerson is expected to assume leadership of a campus network of 14 institutions with more than 230,000 students and an annual budget of $18 billion.
- Critics of the potential hire say that higher education leadership is more collaborative than what Tillerson may be used to. “When he was the CEO at Exxon Mobil he worked his way up the hierarchy and he made the final decision,” Cal Jillson, a professor of political science at Southern Methodist University, told the Journal. “In the chancellor’s job he would be at the head of the table but he is not going to be driving the process, it’s much more consultative.”
Tillerson may be a controversial figure nationally because of his corporate ties and service under an unpopular president, but the things which would make him undesirable outside of Texas are the elements which likely attract him to system board members and state lawmakers driving the selection process. Faculty members and students could be a likely source of public protest, but their complaints would be drowned out by system leaders' insistence on Tillerson's potential as a fundraiser, advocate for federal funding, and corporate savvy in expanding the UT academic enterprise.
It is hard to separate the political nature of this particular appointment from other civil servants who have gone on to soft landings in higher education, because unlike other Trump appointees, Tillerson is viewed as a kind of folk hero who raged against many of the president's unpopular stances on international policy and diplomacy. And that perhaps is a key for institutions looking to hire unconventional presidents and chancellors; if the goal is to make a splash hire with a big name, the best pursuit may be in getting a candidate with whom people can identify, and for whom people can cheer.
But in doing so, campus communities should also know that the effort to attract and retain faculty with diverse politics and social beliefs can be driven from the campus, or if they remain, can become a consistent PR issue for the new leader. When new hires make waves, they must also be ready to ride them out in the reactions of stakeholders, and with every critical decision the new campus CEO makes until he or she earns the trust of the college community.