Here’s one of my favorite Aggie jokes:
Did you hear about the Cessna that crashed in a cemetery in College Station?
Aggie search-and-rescue teams have recovered 300 bodies so far and are still digging.
But it turns out the joke is on us. University of Washington President Michael Young has accepted the top job at Texas A&M University, leaving sparkling Seattle for the drab confines of College Station.
As my Seattle Times colleagues report, money definitely played a role: A&M’s former president was paid $1.6 million in fiscal 2013. At UW, Young earned a base salary of $622,008. More importantly, Young was said to be impressed by the willingness of Texas lawmakers to invest in higher education.
Yes, Texas is the place of extreme politics, extreme weather and extreme braggadocio. Gen. Philip Sheridan said if he owned hell and Texas, he would rent out Texas and live in hell. But it is also one of the most economically competitive states in the country and takes its universities extremely seriously.
Texas A&M and the University of Texas at Austin are two of the top research universities in the nation. They have enjoyed consistent support from legislators in Austin who are otherwise content to see the state suffer dismal outcomes by many social measures. Alumni are in powerful positions (former Gov. Rick Perry was an Aggie). The Texas A&M system has an $11 billion endowment compared with UW’s $2.8 billion.
Nor is A&M a joke or football mill. Like UW, it is a member of the Association of American Universities, the 62 elite research institutions in the United States and Canada. It has been lavished with federal research money, especially under the George W. Bush administration. While one can’t say A&M is superior to the UW, the legislative and political support are stronger.
Sure, Young might like conservative Texas better than liberal Seattle — whatever these terms even mean nowadays — but he also may have been sick of beating his head against the wall in Olympia. He couldn’t have been happy about stagnant-to-falling grant levels from the National Institutes of Health, a critical part of UW’s international research muscle. When research grants and other funding become uncertain, scientists start looking for more stable locales.
Texas is not an economic powerhouse because of low taxes and “light” regulation. If these were the magic elixir, Kansas, Arizona, Mississippi and Somalia would be Hong Kong. The reality is that Texas is foremost a petro superpower. It is also home to three of the 10 largest cities in the United States at a time when cities equal economic power. Dallas and Houston, especially, have long been major corporate centers. San Antonio is leveraging trade with Mexico. Austin is a tech hub.
Also, Texas politicians have spent decades “bringing home the bacon” with federal investments, funding everything from the Houston Ship Channel and advanced medical research to major military bases and Dallas with the nation’s biggest light-rail system. Federal dollars are one of the most important drivers of the Texas economy. The Lone Star State is also full of boosters, so the reality of the “Texas miracle” is not so impressive on close inspection.
Back to us. It would be interesting to know the back story of Young’s hiring and whether he was always wary — he was certainly relatively shy about engaging with the broader community and state — or became discontent. Either way, a prestigious university — a backbone of the state economy — losing its president to another job after less than four years is unfortunate. It should be a wake-up to the Legislature — and to the voters that empower it.
Today’s Econ Haiku:
Staples and Office Depot
Merger won’t be clipped