, Port Arthur, Texas


November 1, 2013

Texas politics: John Sharp as A&M Chancellor

— COLLEGE STATION — After two years as chancellor of the Texas A&M University System, John Sharp, is it harder than being the state's tax collector?

"Yeah," Sharp said without hesitation. "You bet."

The Democrat served 20 years in elective office – four in the Texas House, four in the Senate, four on the Texas Railroad Commission, eight as state comptroller – plus lost races for lieutenant governor in 1998 and 2002.

"I thought I knew a lot about politics," Sharp said in a recent interview. But there are so many different groups and institutions to deal with that Sharp says it's a challenge just to keep up with them.

They include 11 branches of A&M, six state agencies under its purview  -- "We've got offices in 250 of (Texas's) 254 counties" – lots of research, fundraising, 50,000-plus students. He stays busy.

Sharp describes the students as "really amazing" – and not just in school. Of the 1,000 volunteers that helped re-plant trees after the huge Bastrop fire, 900 were Aggies, he said.

"It's a huge research university, that's full of really brilliant people," Sharp said.    

He's been exposed to some "Wow!" moments – like hearing about research that figured out how to make planes so they won't burn.

"Once a week I try to meet with some researcher, just to see what they're doing," Sharp said. "Sometimes when I meet with them, I have to have an interpreter" – even though they're speaking English.

Sharp, 63, is proud of the $740 million raised during the last year – a record for A&M.

Sharp got his bachelor's degree at A&M, was student body president, and has been an active Aggie alum.

Is there a typical day? "Huh-uh," Sharp said, shaking his head slowly. "Depends on whatever happened the night before." His phone usually starts ringing by 6 a.m.

When the Texas Legislature met for its regular biennial session last spring, Sharp moved back to Austin.

"You have to be there," said Sharp, who knows the people, the process, and the back halls in the capitol. He spent the five years before his election to the House as a Legislative Budget Board analyst.

Sharp has worked to strengthen the A&M brand – buying Texas Wesleyan University's law school in Fort Worth to be the Texas A&M University School of Law, bringing the health science center under the system's flag, outsourcing landscaping and building maintenance and food service.

He's ruffled some feathers. Food service workers were nervous about their jobs and pay, but "in fact, everybody's still there – with a raise," Sharp said. The tens of millions of dollars saved are going into academics, Sharp said.

 Shortly after this interview, Sharp and Gov. Rick Perry went to Israel to announce that A&M will open a Peace Campus in Nazareth – promoting coexistence with a student body of Arabs, Jews, and foreigners.

And then, there's football.

The Aggies joined the Southeastern Conference, or SEC, in 2012. And then beat the hottest team in that league, the University of Alabama.

"If we want to be great in football, that's the place: tougher, faster, on TV every week," Sharp said.

It helps recruiting top players, Sharp said. Students hoping to play professional football know the best ticket to the pro draft is through the SEC.

"It turned out to be one of the best decisions we've ever made," Sharp said. "We gave them a way to stay at home (in Texas) and be in the SEC – and be on TV."

Sharp says the football program's success, and Aggie quarterback Johnny Manziel's stunning Heisman Trophy award last year, boosted fundraising -- and A&M's academic reputation.

"Football makes people look at you," said Sharp. He said one Aggie backer compares the football program's success to using duck decoys to attract live birds.

"They'll come over and look at you," Sharp said. And then learn A&M is the number one research university in the southwest.

Sharp said head coach Kevin Sumlin is a tremendous recruiter. In 2012, before the first game in the new league, Sharp asked Billy Pickard, a trainer who had been at A&M since Sharp's student days, about the football team.

Pickard said he wasn't sure how the team would do, "But I will tell you this: these kids are going to play far better than they are."

Why? Their tremendous respect for and loyalty to Sumlin, Pickard said.

"If Sumlin wanted you dead," Sharp said Pickard added, "you wouldn't live 10 minutes."


Contact McNeely at or 512/458-2963.

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