Hanging up his hat: Texas A&M Chancellor John Sharp on his retirement

“Thirteen years ago we were viewed as somebody else’s little brother. Nobody believes that anymore.”

By Laura RiceJuly 2, 2024 4:36 pm, ,

The longest-serving chancellor of the Texas A&M System is retiring.

John Sharp earned his bachelor’s from A&M in 1972 and served as student body president – the shape of things to come.

He was elected to the Texas House of Representatives just six years later, and after a political career that also included serving as the state’s comptroller, he took on the top job at the A&M System in 2011.

In that time, he’s led what his colleagues have described as “a historic building boom” that improved facilities across the system. He’s also lauded for boosting Texas A&M’s academic and athletic reputations.

And while he’s still staying in office for the next 12 months, the system has already acknowledged filling his boots will be a tall order indeed. Sharp spoke with Texas Standard about his tenure and his advice for his successor. Listen to the interview in the player above or read the transcript below.

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:

Texas Standard: Didn’t the A&M System extend your contract by something like seven years in 2021?

John Sharp: Yeah, but at the time that they did that, I told them, “the chances of me staying here until I’m 79 years old are zero – that ain’t gonna happen.”

How did you decide that now is the time to begin the process of passing the torch?

Well, a couple of reasons.

One is I want to make sure that, like anybody hopes, I wanted to go out on top. And over the next year, there are some things that are either going to happen or won’t happen that could be the biggest things, one in particular, that we’ve ever done.

And, if it doesn’t happen, it’s a pretty good time to go. If it does happen, then we’ll get no better than this. And so that’s one of the reasons.

The other thing is that when I signed up for this job back in 2011, in my interview, they asked me, “how long do you want to stay?” And I said, “I’ll give you three years, five at the most.” And it will be 14 before this is over with.

I told them in that interview that I wanted to stay here long enough to get a law school. Well, A&M has been trying to get a law school for about 40 or 50 years, and we got that law school in about six months.

And so, after that, we just started – we have great staff that came up with great ideas about things here, about things in Fort Worth, about things in San Antonio.

We had a research enterprise of about $600 million; it’s $1.2 billion now. Our engineering has just been notified by U.S. News that engineering research, for the first time, has passed MIT and is the No. 1 engineering research university in the nation.

Agricultural research has always been the best in the nation. Our brand-new law school is second only in the state to UT, and we think it’s on a trajectory over the next four or five years, or maybe sooner, to be the No. 1 law school in the in the state of Texas.

You know, 13 years ago, we had 11 National Academy members on A&M staff. We now have over 60. We think there’s a good chance in the next year that we’ll have more National Academy members than any university in Texas.

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And, you know, folks ask me, well, “what do you think your biggest accomplishment is? Is the RELLIS campus? Is it Fort Worth? Is it what’s happened at Texas A&M?” And my answer is, nobody thinks we’re anybody’s little brother anymore.

I mean, 13 years ago, we were kind of viewed by a lot of folks in Texas as somebody’s little brother, and that’s not the case anymore. A&M has become the school of choice for Texas kids. Our research enterprise is the largest in the state of Texas. So many things have blossomed here with the RELLIS campus, the research we do for the Pentagon for all kinds of different things. The space things that we’re building. I mean, it’s just been an incredible experience to watch and to be a part of all of the boom that has happened at Texas A&M over the last decade or so.

And it’s a good time to turn the reins over to somebody else. And I wanted to make sure – the Regents asked me to be here through the next legislative session – and I wanted to make sure they had a full year to commiserate and pick the next chancellor, and so I think this is a good time – a year from today.

You said one of the biggest things might happen in the next year. Are you going to let us in on this big secret, or is it all under wraps?

It is. I mean, all of us are under a nondisclosure agreement from the mayor on down, and we really can’t talk about it. But it’s something that’s transformative to one of the vital industries in the state of Texas and a huge thing for us. And it may not happen.

But if it does, if it’s going to be – for Brazos County, it’s going to be right up there with A&M being here in the first place.

Gabriel C. Pérez / Texas Standard

Texas A&M Chancellor John Sharp.

There’s always been this sort of tension between politics and the academy. And I know you’ve dealt with your share of that. But of course, there have been a couple of high-profile incidents involving faculty and charges of political interference, from the very top. As you look back on that, is there anything you would have done differently?


I think what you’re referring to was Dr. Banks’ unfortunate situation. And, you know, anytime you’re not truthful with the Faculty Senate, that’s going to cause you problems. And it cost her her job – marred a stellar career that she had had.

But I think there’s always tension, across the nation, between legislative bodies and higher education. But we don’t experience that so much. And one of the reasons we don’t experience it is because we’re not viewed as, you know, some snooty, Ivy League-type place.

I mean, Niche Rankings, who ranks schools for parents across the nation based on whether they’re liberal or conservative schools, has just recently named Texas A&M as the second most conservative public university in the country. And so we match, I think, a lot of the public mood of what the Legislature and the electorate is about.

And I think it’s one of the reasons, quite frankly, A&M has become the school of choice in the state of Texas. I mean, that’s one of the reasons we’ve grown perhaps a little faster than we intended to.

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But the real magic of this place. I mean, we’ve got great faculty, great staff. We’ve got great ideas that people bring to me like the RELLIS campus and things like that that are huge research enterprises and things like that. But the real magic to this place is the student body.

Where else in the United States, in a public university, does every single Tuesday night of the school year, 8,000 to 10,000 of our students go into the basketball arena for Bible study? I mean, that doesn’t happen. And it is an amazing student body here that is dedicated not just to each other, but to this university and to the state of Texas and to public service. I mean, they are incredible young people, and you don’t see the kind of divisiveness that occurs here that you see on campuses across the country.

Something that has certainly been in headlines recently has been how colleges have been wrestling with DEI – diversity, equity and inclusion – policies at colleges. How much has that affected A&M?

Not much.

I mean, we didn’t have strong programs in that area. We focus our efforts on recruitment and making sure that we go out and recruit well-qualified people of all backgrounds instead of simply saying, “hey, you got to take this person because they fit these criteria.”

We’ve never done it that way. We do it by going out and saying, “hey, we don’t want you to go to Stanford. We don’t want you to go to Harvard. We don’t want you to go out of state. We want you to come here.” And I think that’s the correct approach.

For people to say that there are, you know, no qualified minority students in high schools – if you hear that, that’s somebody that’s saying they’ve never recruited in those high schools. And that’s where we DEI.

What about those who support DEI? There have been questions raised about how university officials, I think including yourself, value diversity. And it sounds like you’re supportive of what the Legislature did in eliminating a lot of the DEI offices across campuses.

Well, we support what the Legislature passes.

We absolutely support diversity. Our board is on record as saying we want to do everything we can to recruit people from all backgrounds. And we work our tails off doing that. And just recently opened offices in several other places across the state and redoubled efforts in order to do that. We absolutely support it.

But what I think some folks forget is that there are well-qualified young men and women of diverse backgrounds that exist, and nobody from Texas universities go find those kids to make sure that they don’t go out of state and they don’t go to other places, that they come to our universities. What we find is that if we can get them here, we’ll keep them.

But there is no place that values diversity more than us. We’re talking about how you go about it. And the way you go about it is you get off your butts and go out into Houston’s classrooms and Dallas classrooms and San Antonio classrooms and find these young men and women and recruit them to come to Texas A&M. And that’s what we do, and we’ve been pretty successful at it.

You were pretty concerned about what ending faculty tenure would do to affect A&M’s ability to draw world-class professors. You proposed that lawmakers codify existing tenure policies into law, and that seemed to sort of defuse the entire situation. Did you find yourself having to deal with those sorts of issues frequently over the course of your chancellorship?


And so what happened was, is that we went to the Legislature, including the lieutenant governor and others, and said, “hey, this is how tenure needs to work. This is what we do at Texas A&M.” And once they saw that our tenure policy was very different from some other universities, they said, “that’s what we need to do to all the universities.”

So basically what happened was, is that they codified what we were doing at Texas A&M with regard to tenure. Saying – if you’re tenured, you have to teach, you have to do research. We’re going to check on it on a very regular basis. And as long as that happens, you’re going to remain tenured. If you stop doing that, you’re not going to remain tenured. And once they saw what we were doing, they said, “that’s what we want for the rest of the state.” That’s all that happened.

» FROM THE ARCHIVE: Texas A&M chancellor talks guns, education value and UT rivalry

What about this process of finding a successor? Who would be the right candidate to take your place?

If the Board of Regents calls me and asked me for advice on that, I will provide it. But it will be in private. And I’m not gonna suggest, in any public manner, who or what they should do. I have every confidence in that search committee, that I think is going to be headed by the chairman, that they’re going to find the right person.

If they call me, I’ll give them my best advice, but I will do so in a private way and won’t pretend to tell them one way or the other – unless they ask me.

Is there something that you sort of would put on the mantelpiece as your signature accomplishment?

Of course I’m proud of the law school. I’m proud of the RELLIS campus. I’m proud of the research portfolio. I’m proud of the construction boom that has happened all over the place.

But I would sum it up by saying, you know, 13 years ago we were viewed as somebody else’s little brother. Nobody believes that anymore. We have turned into a powerhouse in so many different ways and become a player on the national and world stage in research, in defense contracting, so many different things, that the bottom line is Texas A&M has become the school of choice for Texas kids, period. And everybody knows that. And I’m especially proud of the kind of student body we have.

What’s your best advice for your replacement?

Get a really great staff. Tell them to think of the craziest ideas they’ve ever thought of in their life and don’t be afraid to bring it to you.

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