AUSTIN (KXAN) –There’s a new face at the helm of the University of Texas system: Chancellor James B. Milliken. He has been on the job nine weeks.  

KXAN sat down with Milliken to talk about what direction he envisions the system going. In the first few months in this new role, Milliken seems open to reducing the system’s administrative involvement on individual campuses. He said the system’s role should provide support so that campuses can innovate as they see fit. 

He is taking on the role following former chancellor Admiral Bill McRaven, who had a background in military leadership, not in higher education. McRaven is a retired Navy SEAL and the Commander of the U.S. Special Operations Command. He oversaw the raid that killed Osama bin Laden. 

Milliken, on the other hand, comes from more than three decades of higher education leadership. Previously, he worked in university systems at the University of Nebraska and the University of North Carolina, and most recently as chancellor of The City University of New York.

Milliken may not be from Texas, but he is embracing the state and it’s potential. His new position has him leading one of the largest university systems in the country, one that educates 235,000 students annually and functions on an annual operating budget of close to 20 billion dollars. The system is made up of 14 institutions, both universities and medical centers, all around the state. Around 21,000 faculty are employed by the system as well as nearly 85,000 health care professionals, researchers, student advisors and support staff. This makes the UT System one of the largest employers in the state.

In his short time on the job, Milliken has made a point of expressing one of his educational philosophies:
“You start with a premise that talent is universal. Opportunity isn’t,” he said.

“We have to match up higher education with the talented young people in Texas so that they have the opportunity to reach their ambition and that Texas continues to be successful in competing in the 21st century economy,” Miliken said, noting this is especially important as Texas is one of the largest and youngest states in the nation.

“Whether or not there’s enough higher education today for all of Texas — and I might suggest that there is not — there certainly won’t be in the decades to come,” he said. 

More money needed for a growing Texas

Milliken believes it will take more money to expand the Texas higher education system to meet the needs of the state’s growing population. 

“I was on the phone with a number of [University] presidents this morning, I know a priority for them is the investment in new facilities, state of the art laboratories, the best kind of classrooms, high-tech classroom facilities so that our students get the advantages that students everywhere have,” he said. 

Milliken noted that the Permanent University Fund could be used to improve facilities on UT System campuses. That fund comes from longstanding management of land in West Texas which is leased out to oil and gas companies, funneling two-thirds of the profit into the UT System. But, Milliken added, that money is only allowed to be used for certain purposes: supporting UT Austin, UT System administration and improving facilities. He explained that the largest sources of system funding are state appropriations and tuition. 

Now Milliken is gearing up to ask Texas legislators to set aside more appropriations for higher education. 

“I plan to spend as much time as I can talking to them about the upside potential of investing in the University of Texas System, frankly of investing in education across the board,” he said.

“The more support that the state provides — assuming we do our job as well as we can about being cost effective — then the less tuition students will have to pay,” Milliken added.

He also works to partner with all the levels of education across Texas, from pre-K to community college, to make sure students are prepared for college when they leave high school and prepared for the workforce once they get a degree.

“Those who are in college now, we need to make it possible for them to persist so that they can get a degree in a reasonable amount of time and get out and start earning a good income,” he said.

Milliken said he has spent much of his time in higher education focused on leveling the playing field for low-income and first generation college students. He plans to continue that focus at UT.

Already, Milliken has spent time talking to Gov. Greg Abbott and feels encouraged that Texas leaders see attracting talented students and faculty as a priority.

“That’s not a conversation that’s going on in every state around the country,” Milliken said

“I would share with anybody: you should feel good about the people that are coming through the University of Texas System, the education they’re getting and how prepared they’ll be for the workforce,” he added. 

Will there be a tuition increase?

We asked Milliken if tuition increases at UT System campuses will be necessary in 2019. 

“There are a lot of things I’m looking at as I spend my 9th week in Texas and at the UT System and there are a lot of answers I don’t have at the moment and that’s an answer I don’t have at the moment,” he said. 

Downsizing the UT System

Last month, a task force recommended cutting between 70 to 110 positions at the system headquarters in Austin. It suggested that doing so would save more than $9 million.

Milliken said his office is still analyzing whether to cut those positions, but he noted there will be some reorganization coming down the pipe for the UT System. Milliken plans to make decisions based on the task force recommendations by the end of this year. 

“One of the areas where we do have flexibility is on the service that we are providing, so if a campus says we believe we can do this ourselves, and if we are confident we are meeting our obligation to the taxpayers of this state to make sure the university performs adequately, then they should be able to do that,” he said. 

Back in 2017 the system also shrunk the size of its administrative headquarters, eliminating 115 full-time positions.

Addressing sexual misconduct

In 2017, the UT System reported the findings of a study on sexual assault and misconduct across almost all its institutions. The Cultivating Learning and Safe Environments (CLASE) report is still continuing research efforts and was billed by the system as “the most in-depth survey of sexual assault and misconduct ever undertaken by an institution or system of higher education.”

The report found that at academic institutions, 10 percent of female undergraduate students and 4 percent of male undergraduate students reported being raped. At the system’s flagship campus of UT Austin, 15 percent of undergraduate women reported being raped and 28 percent of undergraduate women reported unwanted sexual touching. Many of the people surveyed also expressed that they never reported these incidents to their universities or to law enforcement.

We asked Milliken about what he planned to do with the findings and the continued efforts to curb interpersonal violence on campuses.

“It’s under discussion now and we’re talking to — we plan to talk to each of the university presidents about this,” he said. “It’s important information. I know that each of our presidents, from my conversations with them, wants their campus to be a safe place, a welcoming place and a place where people are free from harassment and assault.”

“So this will be done throughout the university system, to make sure steps are taken that programs are put in place, so that victims feel comfortable and safe coming forward and that their concerns are addressed effectively the administration at the universities,”  Milliken added.

He said that the conversations about the specifics of how individual victims are supported needs to happen on a campus level where students will actually be turning to for resources. 

Quantum leaps

Milliken’s predecessor, Adm. McRaven, spearheaded an effort called “Quantum Leaps” to jump start fixes to the most significant problems he saw within the system.

Milliken referred to many of these quantum leaps as “terrific ideas” but added that the efforts behind them will be done by individual campuses and institutions rather than the UT system.

“So there’s some great initiatives going on, for instance in brain science which will continue to take place,” he said in reference to an effort at UT Dallas. 

“Not all of them will continue, for instance the investment in Houston and the development of a campus there, but many of them will,” Milliken said.

As chancellor, McRaven had attempted to develop some land in Houston.

Reaction to President Trump calling out McRaven

Previous Chancellor Admiral Bill McRaven has been in the news recently. When a Fox News Sunday interviewer brought up that McRaven had criticized President Donald Trump’s treatment of journalists, the president responded with his own criticism of McRaven.

“Wouldn’t it have been nice if we got Osama Bin Laden a lot sooner than that. Wouldn’t it have been nice?” President Trump said in the interview.

We asked Milliken for his thoughts on what the president said about McRaven. 

“I haven’t followed that, I was too concerned with the Texas-Iowa State game this weekend, but I do, I know Bill McRaven he’s a great American. He was a great university leader. I have an enormous amount of respect for him,” Milliken said, adding that McRaven has given him lots of tips about leading the UT System.

We asked if McRaven (who has a book entitled, “Make Your Bed”)  had advised Milliken to make his bed: “No comment,” Milliken laughed.