Huffines leaves his im­print on UT Sys­tem

Banker only 4th per­son to serve as re­gent chair twice

Austin American-Statesman - - METRO & STATE - By Ralph K.M. Hau­r­witz AMER­I­CAN-STATES­MAN STAFF

James Huffines isn’t a big fan of the spot­light. And so it was that he stepped down qui­etly this month from the Uni­ver­sity of Texas Sys­tem’s Board of Re­gents.

The Austin banker with deep Repub­li­can roots and close ties to Gov. Rick Perry had an out­size in­flu­ence dur­ing his 71⁄

2 years of ser­vice, which in­cluded nearly 41⁄ years as board chair­man. Huffines

2 was only the fourth per­son to serve two stints as chair­man since the board be­gan op­er­at­ing in 1881.

It’s been an honor to serve on the board, Huffines, 59, said this week. Asked why he had de­cided to leave well be­fore the Fe­bru­ary 2015 ex­pi­ra­tion of his sec­ond six-year term, he replied: “It was time for some oth­ers to have the priv­i­lege to serve on the board.”

Look­ing back, it ap­pears that the wheels of his res­ig­na­tion might have be­gun rolling in De­cem­ber, when he abruptly an­nounced at a re­gents’ re­treat that he would step down from the chair­man­ship in March.

“I’m burned out,” he said at the time.

Con­tin­ued from B

In a let­ter to fel­low re­gents in­form­ing them of his res­ig­na­tion this month, Huffines, a GOP stal­wart for decades, sounded a cau­tion­ary note about pol­i­tics, say­ing that the uni­ver­sity sys­tem has of­ten been a tar­get of po­lit­i­cal con­tro­versy through­out its his­tory.

“There­fore,” he wrote, “while al­ways re­spect­ful of the po­lit­i­cal process, the Re­gents hope­fully will con­tin­u­ally be united in el­e­vat­ing the Uni­ver­sity above any type of a par­ti­san agenda.”

He also urged the re­gents to con­sider the longterm im­pacts of their de­ci­sions.

“In fact,” he wrote, “I hope you will think in terms of multi-gen­er­a­tional con­se­quences for each ma­jor de­ci­sion. It is this con­tin­u­ous com­mit­ment to a long-term vi­sion of im­prov­ing ex­cel­lence that keeps our uni­ver­si­ties mov­ing for­ward through­out the decades.”

Mem­bers of the state’s pub­lic uni­ver­sity gov­ern­ing boards are ap­pointed by the gover­nor and serve on a vol­un­teer ba­sis. For many re­gents, the work amounts to a part-time job. Huffines was es­pe­cially de­voted to the blend of pol­i­cy­mak­ing, pol­i­tics and schmooz­ing re­quired to over­see the UT Sys­tem, which, with 15 cam­puses, 202,000 stu­dents and a $12 bil­lion an­nual op­er­at­ing bud­get, is the largest and most pres­ti­gious higher ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem in the state.

Huffines or­ches­trated plans that could some­day re­sult in a mas­sive com­mer­cial and res­i­den­tial devel­op­ment at the uni­ver­sity-owned Brack­en­ridge tract, a 350-acre par­cel in West Austin that he re­gards as a po­ten­tially lu­cra­tive source of in­come for the flag­ship cam­pus.

He was in­stru­men­tal in set­ting up a train­ing and re­search part­ner­ship in Austin in­volv­ing the Se­ton Fam­ily of Hos­pi­tals and the UT South­west­ern Med­i­cal Cen­ter at Dal­las — a part­ner­ship that could some­day evolve into a med­i­cal school here. And he was ac­tive in leg­isla­tive af­fairs, help­ing pre­serve the tu­ition-set­ting author­ity of pub­lic uni­ver­sity gov­ern­ing boards and scale back a state law that guar­an­teed ad­mis­sion to UT-Austin for stu­dents grad­u­at­ing in the top 10 per­cent of their Texas high school class.

Colleen McHugh, who suc­ceeded Huffines as chair­man, said the Board of Re­gents is in­debted to him.

“His ser­vice to the UT Sys­tem and the State of Texas is im­mea­sur­able, and his con­tri­bu­tions have made an in­deli­ble im­pact,” she said.

Huffines’ day job is chair­man of Plain­sCap­i­tal Bank’s Cen­tral & South Texas Re­gion. He will as­sume the chair­man­ship of the Greater Austin Cham­ber of Com­merce, a vol­un­teer post, in Jan­uary.

He cut his teeth in pub­lic ser­vice in the late 1980s, when he served as ap­point­ments sec­re­tary for then-Gov. Bill Cle­ments. His po­lit­i­cal in­volve­ment over the years has been mostly be­hind the scenes. He co-chaired Perry’s in­au­gu­ra­tion in 2003 and 2007, and he was among sev­eral Tex­ans who raised $500,000 or more for Ari­zona Sen. John McCain’s bid for the White House.

Huffines hasn’t al­ways marched as the good po­lit­i­cal sol­dier. He voted with the other re­gents in 2008 to hire Fran­cisco Ci­gar­roa, pres­i­dent of the UT Health Sci­ence Cen­ter at San An­to­nio, as chan­cel­lor of the sys­tem rather than John Mont­ford, a telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions lob­by­ist and for­mer state sen­a­tor who Perry had said would be a good choice.

Re­gent Steve Hicks of Austin has been shifted to Huffines’ un­ex­pired term. Perry named Brenda Pe­jovich of Dal­las, the CEO of BFG Man­age­ment Co. LLC and a for­mer mem­ber of the Texas Higher Ed­u­ca­tion Co­or­di­nat­ing Board, to fill Hicks’ term, which ex­pires in Fe­bru­ary.

James Huffines was on board for 71⁄ years.

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