John Sharp learned that Texas AM wanted a law school around 1972, when he was 22 years old.
One of his first bosses, Bryan state Sen. William T. Moore, had been working toward the goal, but complained of interference from people like Frank Erwin, the politically connected chairman of the University of Texas System Board of Regents. The effort went nowhere.
Forty years later, Sharp is chancellor of his alma maters university system and spearheaded the effort for AM to buy the Texas Wesleyan School of Law. AM announced the purchase Tuesday, pending state approval. Now, Sharp hopes the states political landscape has shifted enough for him to achieve his old bosss agenda.
Some signs point to Austin now being a friendlier place for that goal. There is an Aggie governor, Rick Perry, who has expressed public support for the idea. And the chairman of the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, Fred Heldenfels, is an Aggie donor.
But the purchase comes at a time when state money is tight and jobs are hard for attorneys to find. And Texas Senate Finance Committee Chairman Steve Ogden, R-Bryan, predicted that AMs $25 million purchase price may raise eyebrows, especially considering the fact that AM committed millions more to lure a federal biosecurity research center to Bryan-College Station last week.
AM is sending out a conflicting message that they are going to have to work on in the Legislature because all we ever hear is how broke they are and how they are going to have to raise tuition to keep going, but yet every week there is a new announcement that they are going to spend tens of millions of dollars that in my opinion have very little to do with their core responsibility, which is to provide a world class education to 45,000 undergraduates, he said. While they are out there empire-building, they are going to have a hard time explaining to the Legislature that they need more money.
The Legislature has no role in approving or rejecting the law school proposal. That job is up to the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, which must sign off on any new degrees the university offers. Sharp said Tuesday that he likes AMs chances in getting that approval.
The coordinating board leadership has been briefed on every single meeting we have had [about buying Texas Wesleyan], he said Tuesday.
Heldenfels, who became coordinating board chairman in 2010, was out of town Wednesday and couldnt be reached for comment. The boards spokesman, Dominic Chavez, said it was too early in the process to say whether the program will be approved, or even what criteria will be considered during the process.
But Ogden noted that the Legislature will be needed to fund the school after it is approved. And he questioned whether that will happen since the state doesnt seem to need new lawyers. A Wall Street Journal analysis published this week reported that 45 percent of 2011 law school graduates didnt have a job within nine months of graduation.
I dont think the Legislature wants more lawyers, he said. There is going to be some resistance in the Legislature for funding this.
Sharp seemed prepared for that argument Tuesday.
We are not interested in producing more lawyers, he said. We are interested in producing more world-class lawyers.
In a statement Wednesday, AM System spokesman Steve Moore dismissed Ogdens concerns.
Chancellor Sharp and Senator Ogden are good friends and have great respect for each other, but lately have disagreed on most things with respect to AM, Moore said. Chancellor Sharp was an active proponent of the move to the SEC, the BARDA bio-defense program, RFPs leading to the Compass, USA agreement and the law school letter of intent. Senator Ogden expressed reservations about all these moves. In all of these cases, they agree to disagree.
In other ways, AM officials may see fewer obstacles to a law school than it has in the past.
AMs last effort to offer a law degree came in the 1990s, when it entered into a partnership with the South Texas College of Law in Houston. Under that arrangement, South Texas would have remained private, but its degrees would have had AMs name on it. AM also would have gained influence over the law schools curriculum and faculty hiring.
The Higher Education Coordinating Board blocked that plan, saying it was concerned that the state would eventually end up having to fund the school.
But AM officials also perceived that politics were involved in the decision. Ray Bowen, who was AM president at the time, said supporters of the University of Houston Law Center opposed the idea of an AM incursion on the Houston legal community. The city already had two public law schools, Houston and Texas Southern.
You have to support Houstons wish to keep their territory, Bowen said. You have three law schools within a rocks throw.
A partnership with Texas Wesleyan may be different, Bowen said, because there is no other law school in Fort Worth to compete. The University of North Texas does plan on opening a law school in Dallas in 2015, however.
State Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, who has spearheaded the effort to start a North Texas law school, didnt return a message seeking comment.