Huffines leaves his imprint on UT System
Banker only 4th person to serve as regent chair twice
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.