UNT Chancellor Jackson's reign has its ups, downs

Posted Monday, Feb. 11, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
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At a glance

Students

1,949

Faculty

406

Adjunct faculty

855

Graduates

6,003

Research awards

$41 million

Health practice sites

49

Health providers

More than 220

Annual patient encounters

More than 580,000

Square feet of facilities

1.4 million

Source: University of North Texas Health Science Center

D.O.s vs. M.D.s

Osteopathic medicine

A practice that is centered on the whole person, the body's ability to heal itself and disease prevention. Doctors of osteopathic medicine are called D.O.s and are fully trained and licensed to prescribe medicine.

Allopathic medicine

A system in which medical doctors and other healthcare professionals (such as nurses, pharmacists and therapists) treat symptoms and diseases using drugs, radiation or surgery. M.D.s practice allopathic medicine.

Sources: American Osteopathic Association, National Institutes of Health

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FORT WORTH -- Many who knew Lee Jackson before he became chancellor of the University of North Texas System describe an effective, if low-key, politician.

A conservative Republican, Jackson collaborated with the most ardent liberal Democrats while serving in the Texas Legislature for a decade, they say, and later on the Dallas County Commissioners Court, where he presided as county judge, its highest official, for 16 years.

But in the academic environment of UNT, Jackson's detractors describe a different person. Some who spent time with him in the past say he has changed since taking over as chancellor in 2002, and they go so far as to say that he can be indifferent and aloof.

But the UNT System board of regents has backed him, and the system has racked up an impressive list of accomplishments on his watch: system-wide enrollment growth of 28 percent, a doubling of enrollment at a growing UNT Health Science Center campus in Fort Worth, new buildings including a football stadium in Denton, the opening of a UNT Dallas campus and new law, pharmacy and health profession schools. By combining such operations as human resources, purchasing and payroll system-wide, UNT saved $500,000 its first year.

But there have also been some abrupt firings and departures of top university administrators, most recently Dr. Scott Ransom, released as president of the Health Science Center in Fort Worth in December. The events continue to stir controversy as the system strives for First Tier status and the go-ahead on a new M.D. school in Fort Worth while competing for crucial state support against the larger and politically influential University of Texas and Texas A&M systems.

"His hiring [of top UNT officials] has been great; his firings have been lousy -- because it often involved the same people," said Burle Pettit, a retired Lubbock newspaper editor who was on the board of regents when Jackson was named chancellor. "Everyone who reported to him had a way of never pleasing him."

In addition to Ransom, the 2010 forced resignation of Gretchen Bataille, the generally popular and respected president of UNT's main campus in Denton, provoked consternation. Critics have distributed a list of other ranking officials who allegedly ran afoul of Jackson and found their UNT careers cut short.

Jackson has spoken little about the upheavals. During an interview Thursday, he declined to respond to criticisms of his management style, noting that each executive change was approved by the board of regents, which he described as a body of independent-minded people.

Regarding Ransom's handling of a proposal to merge administration of the Denton and Fort Worth campuses, Jackson said the regents "did not find his explanation convincing." According to correspondence he released, Jackson pointedly asked Ransom on Nov. 13 not to "undermine or prejudice" a study on merging, or "advocate for disregarding or circumventing key state officials." The merger was ultimately shelved.

The letter makes clear that Jackson believed Ransom was rallying Fort Worth community leaders against UNT initiatives and drawing attention to the system's shortcomings. It sets out a case of insubordination, if not institutional sabotage, by Ransom, who was fired Dec. 21, three months after the regents gave him a fat new contract.

Ransom denies that he undermined the merger idea and called his firing "politically motivated." On Sunday, Jackson said in an email statement: "Neither the board nor I had any political agenda. Our differences resulted from Dr. Ransom's lack of forthright and professional leadership. It was inhibiting the growth and well-being of the Health Science Center. Now, we can begin to expand opportunities available to us in Fort Worth."

The 63-year-old chancellor clearly remains pained about how the merger suggestion ended up and said he will continue to urge regents to continue pushing nonacademic consolidation to squeeze out more back-office savings, which can be plowed into classrooms and laboratories.

But, Jackson said, "change on the academic side has to be done more sensitively. I still believe the subject of a possible university merger between UNT [in Denton] and the health science center is a good idea that didn't receive the calm, thoughtful consideration it should have. When we took it off the table last fall, it wasn't a short-term decision. It probably means it's dead for years to come, tainted by the nature of the discussion."

And that could put the UNT System at a further disadvantage vis-a-vis the UT and A&M systems, which are pursuing consolidation, he warned.

"I told a Fort Worth group last week that I think there might be a day that you'll come to me asking why we aren't looking at it more actively," he said, adding that it would be natural, say, for a forensic science undergrad in Denton to segue into a fifth-year program at the health science center in Fort Worth. "But it's not the tradition of higher education."

At some point, he predicted, "there are going to be people pushing on us, asking, 'Why isn't there more collaboration?'"

Another test

The tumult provides another test for a man who has spent most of his life in the public arena.

Born in Austin, Jackson grew up from the age of 2 months in the blue-collar "dry side" of Dallas' Oak Cliff neighborhood, but he said he didn't realize it carried a real social stigma until he attended Kimball High School. His parents, sweethearts since eighth grade, both graduated from what became UNT.

At Kimball, Jackson was elected to the student council and made the National Honor Society. He studied political science at Duke University, the farthest school from Dallas to admit him, he said. His parents moved to Toronto the day after he graduated from high school, his father having taken a transfer at his Canadian employer that later became part of Rockwell International.

Early on, Jackson set his sights on public service. "When his friends were saying they wanted to be quarterback for the Dallas Cowboys, Jackson was watching Lyndon B. Johnson on television and thinking he could be a better president," D magazine said when it named him 1996 Public Servant of the Year.

He won a full scholarship to Southern Methodist University for graduate study in public administration. An internship led to a full-time job in the Dallas city manager's office, where he stayed from 1971 to 1974.

After writing speeches for City Council members, he recalls naively telling himself, "Hey, I can do this."

A sudden staff opening in state Rep. Ray Hutchison's district office led to Jackson's first political job, and he helped run the legislator's re-election campaign. He then worked in Alan Steelman's congressional race against former Dallas Mayor Earl Cabell and could have gotten a job in Washington when Steelman won.

But then Hutchison decided to seek higher office, leaving his seat up for grabs in a rock-solid Republican district. So Jackson, 26, decided to contest the Republican primary for the state House seat in 1976.

Three veteran pols dropped out and Jackson found himself pitted in his first political race against an even younger newcomer, lawyer Kent J. Newsom, whose father and grandfather -- both doctors -- seemed to have delivered everyone who answered the door to Jackson's knock, he recalled.

Just 1 year older than Newsom, Jackson deadpanned, "I ran on a maturity platform." And won.

There were fewer than 20 Republicans out of some 150 members, so he had no choice but to work with the then-dominant Democrats, he said. "There was more of an urban-rural split, with the suburbs trying to figure out where they stood," he said.

In those days, no one was surprised when Gib Lewis, the Democratic speaker from Tarrant County, appointed Jackson chairman of the business and commerce committee in his third term.

In 1983, Texas Monthly called Jackson one of Austin's best legislators, saying his ingrained sense of fairness often infuriated fellow Republicans and ideologically akin lobbyists.

"Lee is a problem solver with a conservative bent to him, but never an ideologue," recalled Steve Wolens, a liberal-leaning Democrat from Dallas who sat next to Jackson during two sessions more than 20 years ago.

"He leads and governs within the 40-yard lines, generally looking for consensus with a tilt to right," added Wolens, describing himself still as a clear admirer. "He never masks the truth so it favors one position. Even when it's not flattering him, he is quick to discuss his frailties and mistakes."

Says Jackson: "I'm a better combatant if I know my position is fair."

When he left the Legislature in 1986, "I truly didn't know what I'd do next," Jackson said.

He says he had no guiding political ambition when the Dallas county judge, Frank Crowley, suddenly died in office.

Jackson fought a three-way race. His opponents were Democrat Kathryn Cain, a charismatic Safeway executive and attorney who had helped establish the North Texas Food Bank and was married to a state representative; and Max Goldblatt, a colorful and outspoken independent who had served on the Dallas City Council.

Far from a baby-kissing politician and a less-than-enthralling speaker, Jackson describes himself as "a button-down, dull guy who people said was competent." Then there's a natural reticence: "I don't like to draw attention."

Goldblatt predicted that if Jackson were elected judge, firebrand Commissioner John Wiley Price would destroy him. "Can you imagine what John Wiley Price would do to Lee Jackson?" Goldblatt told D. "I'm the only one who can kick John Wiley in the shins and say, 'Behave.'"

But Jackson defeated Cain, with a 1 percent margin. And Goldblatt, who ran a distant third, was proved wrong about Jackson's handling of Price.

The new Republican county judge surprised many by forging a constructive relationship with Price, a committed liberal Democrat who had made headlines acting out unpredictably, once bending a woman motorist's windshield wiper during a street protest. "It was a very volatile court that could have exploded at any time but for him," said Tarrant County Judge Glen Whitley, who worked with Jackson on regional transportation issues.

"I must have voted with Lee 99 percent of the time," said Price, who referred to Jackson as "his biggest ally" on the court. "It's easy to work with someone who is smart and fair. Lee was smart. Lee was balanced. Lee was reasonable."

Jackson as county judge helped end jail overcrowding, added courts to prosecute drug and domestic violence cases, and created programs for mentally ill offenders. To his mind, his biggest accomplishments included creation of the Sixth Floor Museum, for years a political hot potato that he took on, and of the North Texas Tollway Authority.

Dr. Ron J. Anderson, who served 29 years as Parkland Memorial Hospital's president and chief executive, said he marveled at how well Jackson ran the Commissioners Court, which was crucial for the county-supported hospital.

"We were building clinics in south Dallas, trying to bring primary healthcare there," Anderson recalled. "He was able to deliver a 5-0 vote. He worked behind the scenes and knew what the vote was going to be before it was cast. He really vetted the issues well before he got them out in public. I had a very high regard for him -- very transparent, I thought, and easy to work with."

And yet Anderson counts himself among those who have radically revised their view of Lee Jackson.

Three months after Ransom was given a new contract last year, the Health Science Center president was "given the opportunity to resign" and then fired when he didn't take it, said Anderson, who is chairman of the center's board of visitors, an advisory body. Anderson knew that Ransom disagreed with a plan to merge the Fort Worth and Denton campuses in the hope it would help bring UNT closer to Tier One status. But to him, it didn't seem a firing offense.

"I had known Lee Jackson in the past," Anderson said in a telephone interview. "I hadn't seen him as an irrational person who shoots from the hip. That's why this really surprised me. ... We were blind to the dissension between the two; not clued in on it at all."

Similarly, the forced resignation of Bataille two years earlier left people in Denton and beyond grasping for an explanation.

"Sometimes academics forget they have a boss," said one UNT faculty member, who spoke only in exchange for anonymity. "Both Ransom and Bataille forgot that Lee Jackson was the boss." Bataille, now senior vice president of the Washington-based American Council on Education, declined to comment for this report.

M.D. competition

Ransom's firing comes at the start of a Texas legislative session during which UNT was expecting to compete for a new M.D. school against proposals for schools in Austin and the Rio Grande Valley. With infrastructure already in place, Fort Worth could prove a bargain for the state. Ransom testified before a state Senate committee last year that $25 million raised from local hospitals and other Fort Worth donors would cover the entire cost for five years since the new school would share facilities at the osteopathic school.

Jackson expressed confidence that the Health Science Center could still count on the hefty pledges, even after Ransom's departure, and that the M.D. school has a good shot at approval this year.

Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, a UNT graduate and chairwoman of the Senate Health and Human Services Committee, sounded far less sure.

"Last session, Senators were very concerned about the number of regions asking for new medical schools, especially in a session dominated by very difficult budget decisions. There were also concerns about the impact an MD program would have on the outstanding osteopathic program already in place" at the Health Science Center, she said in an email statement.

To make matters worse for Jackson, Nelson said, she "strongly and publicly objected" to Jackson moving the UNT System headquarters from Denton to downtown Dallas in 2009, where a law school is scheduled to open next year. The UNT System cannot afford to cross the influential senator, who noted that she voted against the system's planned Dallas law school.

Jackson said of moving the headquarters, "I wish I had done more speaking to people in Denton." It could have been moved to Las Colinas or elsewhere, but UNT already had the space in Dallas, which is a convenient location to meet with construction companies, architects and others, he said. And it proved an inexpensive shift while improving the visibility of the system, Jackson added.

There were unfounded anxieties in Denton that hundreds of positions would be shifted to Dallas, but only 26 were transferred, he said. "We don't have the space or the plans," he said of bringing more to Dallas, while a new IT center was built in Denton, where 373 full-time workers dedicated to the system administration are based.

Clearly, Jackson sees the UNT System as an underdog, the smallest Texas state university system of the six in enrollment and net assets.

"The most obvious asset we have that they don't have is the North Texas region," one of the fastest-growing in the nation and one with many opportunities for collaboration with major institutions in the Metroplex, he said. What's lacking is a regional cohesion that can translate as clout for the benefit of UNT in the Legislature, he said.

"We're not a powerful system of universities but we're one with great opportunities," Jackson went on, noting the plethora of Fortune 500 corporations dotting the landscape. "I once had a leader of a rural university tell me, 'Lee, if we had opportunities you have in Dallas-Fort Worth, I could raise a billion dollars for my university. The message was sort of, 'Why don't you quit whining and get off your duff and take advantage of the region you're in?'

"And that's our challenge."

Barry Shlachter, 817-390-7718

Twitter: @bshlachter," Price

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