ROBSTOWN, TX—Texas A&M University System Chancellor John Sharp backed away from supporting a potential merger between Corpus Christi and Kingsville campuses after controversy erupted over an Oct. 5 meeting involving state legislators and more than a half-dozen of the area’s most prominent businessmen.
Sharp hosted a sometimes heated town hall gathering at the Richard M. Borchard Regional Fairgrounds on Nov. 21 to answer concerns regarding the proposed merger, which he later said was “dead as a doornail.”
Much of the town hall was spent reassuring members of both South Texas communities that despite the appearance of classic backroom wheeling and dealing—a key legislator reassured attendees the merger could be completed before public opposition could be mustered, for example—nothing untoward occurred at the October meeting.
“I did not call a secret meeting. I did not participate in a secret meeting,” Sharp repeatedly told the Robstown gathering of a few hundred people.
STUDENTS, FACULTY IN THE DARK
The public, including students, faculty and staff at both campuses, were only made aware of the proposed merger plans after State Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, who was present at the Oct. 5 meeting, confirmed to a Corpus Christi television station on Nov. 2 that the system board of regents was set to hear a presentation by TAMUK President Dr. Steven Tallant regarding the idea.
Indeed, a presentation was delivered during the board’s Nov. 10 meeting by Tallant and TAMUCC interim-President Dr. Kelly Quintanilla. The presentation included numerous explorations of the potential benefits a merger could hold, especially the buckets of public money in which a more robust research institution could potentially qualify.
Though the public discourse about a possible merger seemingly unfolded with lightning speed, it also quickly unraveled.
All thanks to one of the attendees at that “secret meeting.”
A GOOD ‘OL BOY WHISTLEBLOWER
Philip C. Skrobarczyk, president of the TAMUCC Foundation and head of Fulton Construction, decided it was his duty to speak up—he was at the October meeting of local elites. He says he was shocked by the group assembled by Sharp—there were no faculty, staff or student representatives from either campus, save for Tallant, just rich white men and their legislative minions.
“He (Sharp) said if ya’ll are for it, a small group of 17, it’s a done deal,” Skrobarczyk said.
“There wasn’t a single Hispanic in that room except for the legislators. There wasn’t a single woman in that room and the guy (Sharp) tells a rape joke,” he added.
The story Skrobarczyk tells about the origins of the merger push is far different than that shared by Sharp and Tallant, the chancellor’s favorite university president.
Skrobarczyk says discussions over a possible merger began to take a serious turn almost nine months ago. He said one major obstacle then was TAMUCC’s president, Dr. Flavius Killebrew, who didn’t like the idea.
But then Killebrew announced his retirement in September, less than a month before the “secret meeting.”
When confronted by an avalanche of questions after the Nov. 2 news story broke, Tallant curiously wrote this to faculty and students the next day, “Many of you may have heard a news report regarding a possible merger … As many long-term Coastal Bend residents know, this type of discussion is not new. Leadership changes at either campus often spur this type of talk.”
Skrobarczyk told the South Texan that Killebrew was a casualty of the process since he wasn’t willing to be a participant.
“All of a sudden we have this opening, that happened on Sept. 14 or whatever, where Flavius resigned. All of a sudden we have this opening, and ‘bing!’ it brings up this brilliant idea that we are going to merge the universities,” Skrobarczyk said.
“They’ve been talking about this for nine months. I will submit to you that Flavius was a casualty of war in this thing. Because he was never in favor of it.
“They had to get him out of the way.”
SHARP: ‘RELEASE THE TAPE…PLEASE’
“Philip, are you here? Let me ask you something, man. What in the world are you thinking?
“That wasn’t a question,” Sharp told last week’s Robstown gathering—hoots and hollers from the crowd would eventually force the chancellor to cede the stage to Skrobarczyk, but only for a moment.
Sharp would make the argument that the details of the Oct. 5 meeting Skrobarczyk released were inaccurate, all bits and pieces taken out of context.
Sharp begged him to release a recording of the meeting if he’d made one.
“If you taped the meeting, I beg you, turn the tape over to the media and let them see everything,” Sharp implored him.
Skrobarczyk says he didn’t tape the meeting—but his letter was so accurate Sharp thought he did.
“There is not one false, misleading, out of context note in my comments (to the board),” he said. “I’ve had three people call me and say, ‘Sharp thinks you taped it, it’s so accurate.’”
Skrobarczyk laments that he had to write his letter to the regents. But he says he was simply galled by the “decisions” so few were poised to make that could affect so many.
“The sad part about it is there are people in our community who think that they’re the decision makers. That they’re going to dictate how we all do things around here. I take great exception to that,” Skrobarczyk told the South Texan.
“If I hadn’t written that letter on Oct. 5, what would the conversation have been like? What would we be doing today?
“We’d be going directly to the legislature to deal with it. And those fights can get very, very expensive.”
Skrobarczyk says TAMUCC has already lost $20 million in donor commitments as a result of the merger news.
LOZANO OK WITH MERGER?
Skrobarczyk wasn’t the only target of Sharp’s defensive maneuver. At one point during his Robstown town hall, the chancellor excoriated Kleberg County’s local state representative, J.M. Lozano, for calling him a liar in a statewide news story.
Lozano, who was among those at the October meeting, and after Skrobarczyk’s notes came out he suggested to the Texas Tribune that the chancellor’s behavior was bad enough to merit losing his position leading the university system.
“The issue now is I want an explanation and an apology to the people of Kingsville and Corpus Christi for there not being transparency,” Lozano told the news website. “And I want the regents to investigate why this has happened to make sure that no future chancellor does this.”
But Sharp very publicly called Lozano’s bluff.
“When you called me a liar for saying that you did not say, ‘I’m for this as long as you protect Kingsville Engineering,’ that’s a lie,” Sharp told the Robstown gathering.
Coincidentally, on the same day Lozano attended the October meeting with Sharp, Tallant and the others, he also participated in a debate in Jones Auditorium hosted by TAMUK’s Javelina Press Club and the Kingsville Record and Bishop News.
Lozano said nothing during the debate about any merger plans, nor about his opposition to them.
Skrobarczyk told the South Texan that he recalled the state legislator supporting the idea of a merger at the October meeting so long as it wouldn’t negatively affect TAMUK’s growing engineering program.
Lozano’s sudden opposition to the merger idea—just as Hinojosa’s and some others—developed the same day Skrobarczyk’s notes became public.
Hinojosa, a Democrat whose District 20 seat covers most of Nueces County, as well as state representatives Todd Hunter, a Republican, and Abel Herrero, a Democrat, both from Corpus Christi, issued a statement on Nov. 10 suggesting they were against any merger, though Hinojosa didn’t communicate such sentiments when he made the plan public to KRIS-TV on Nov. 2.
CONTROVERSY BE DAMNED
Despite local politicians running for cover over their own roles regarding the merger plans, not everyone at the Robstown town hall was willing to let the “secret meeting” kill the merger outright.
Multiple members of the audience voiced their support for a merger, particularly after Tallant reiterated the financial benefits of the idea. He told the crowd a more robust South Texas A&M could draw as much as $250 million to the area.
One merger supporter, former longtime Corpus Christi state legislator Hugo Berlanga, who served the area from 1977 to 1998, gave a rousing speech about how the merger could transform the economic fortunes of the Coastal Bend.
Berlanga said South Texas had for too long allowed intra-community conflict to stifle progress.
Still, the whiff of backroom dealing hung in the air as the two-hour town hall meeting began to break up.
WHO CALLED THE SECRET MEETING?
One critical question remained unanswered: If Sharp didn’t call that October meeting, who did?
Susie Luna Saldana, president of the Corpus Christi Association of United School Employees (CCAUSE), first raised the question.
Sharp said he was merely invited to the meeting. Asked by whom, the audience chuckled when the chancellor said he couldn’t remember.
“How do you not know who invited you to a meeting? [Skrobarcyzk] let people know what was going on…this thing wouldn’t have been stopped. I represent teachers, and a lot of them work for [TAMUCC],” Saldana said.
Later, Skrobarcyzk told the South Texan who he thought was behind the “secret meeting.”
“[Sharp] called the meeting. He called Samuel Susser and Mike Shaw and (asked them to call) a meeting, that’s what I was told. I had no idea about the invitation list…but it was absolutely on purpose that (TAMU) Corpus Christi was not represented,” Skrobarcyzk said, adding that he received an invitation on Susser’s letterhead.
Reached by the South Texan, Susser confirmed that he and Shaw, who owns multiple car dealerships in South Texas, were directly involved in setting up the Oct. 5 meeting. Susser said he knew the chancellor had ideas about strengthening higher education, so he and Shaw pulled together people who have been “strong supporters of higher education” along with legislative delegation to meet and listen.
Susser didn’t recall sending out invitations.
“I don’t believe there was or is…not that I recall…but it was a private meeting,” Susser shared.
The businessman lamented how badly the merger discussions have so far devolved.
“We’ve underinvested in higher education of South Texas. We have an exploding population. I am very motivated to pursue funding to increase the size and the quality of our university,” Susser said.
He hopes that the merger is not dead forever and both universities can still become an emerging research institution—the faster the better.
He questions the motives of those who refuse to embrace the idea and allow access to millions of dollars.
MERGER IS NOT DEAD
Despite the hand-wringing, however, even Skrobarcyzk says he doesn’t believe the merger idea is dead.
He said he’s spoken to legislators Lozano and Hunter about the proposed concept being dead. Both told him that though they would not be the ones presenting any legislation this upcoming session, they do not believe the plan is dead, he said.
“It sure as heck doesn’t sound like it is,” Skrobarcyzk said. “Sharp tried to spin it yesterday (Nov. 21) where it was such a great deal, that everybody was going to be Kumbaya. We were going to get all these great things, we were going to get all this extra money,” he said.
Skrobarcyzk said meetings like October’s don’t happen unless something very serious is afoot.
“You don’t forget the order of magnitude of what we were hearing in that room. You don’t forget it. Not when you’ve poured your life building this place.”
Later he added: “I am an Aggie. All my boys went to A&M and it makes me sick to have him (Sharp) at the helm.”
Whether the merger eventually happens or not, about one thing Skrobarcyzk is fairly certain—he’ll pay a steep price for his honesty.
“I’m not sure I’ll ever work in this town again, but I wasn’t about to sit around and listen to that crap.”