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Texas A&M System chancellor orders audits to identify savings

By Allen Reed, Bryan-College Station Eagle

EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the first in a series of stories looking at the state of finances within the Texas A&M University System, including examinations of information technology, communication and Easterwood Airport operations, along with the overall fiscal outlook for the system. This story looks at the planned administrative reviews. Upcoming stories will examine the ongoing audit of the system's information technology departments and communications personnel, as well as recommended projects that are likely to generate revenue.

Texas A&M University System Chancellor John Sharp, who presided over the largest outsourcing of services ever at a public university, is now heading up moves to examine information technology, communications, airport operations and every single administrative position in the system.

The 62-year-old former state comptroller is leading the system through a self-evaluation aimed at examining efficiencies and quality of service.

Contracts have been awarded to private consultants to scrutinize the system's information technology services and communications staff, with completion expected this year, and the university is trying to outsource the management of Easterwood Airport. All 17,000 employees across 11 Texas universities and nine state agencies in the A&M system are set to be assessed in separate administrative audits that could be awarded to a contractor as early as this month.

Sharp oversaw the largest-ever outsourcing of services of a public university in August. The $270 million deal with Compass Group privatized dining, landscaping, maintenance and custodial services.

The latest five reviews are targeted at cutbacks and are not necessarily a prelude to more outsourcing.

The scope may be broad, but Sharp said his philosophy is plain.

"What we're trying to do is real simple -- find whatever savings we can and become as efficient as possible," Sharp said.

Still, with A&M in the thick of the overhauls, there are some who worry longtime employees might lose their jobs, quality of services could decline or that the sense of Aggie community will get lost in number-crunching.

Texas tax collector

The foundation for A&M's unprecedented comprehensive audits started at least two decades ago when Sharp won election as state comptroller, a job he held from 1991 to 1998. As comptroller, Sharp was the gatekeeper for the money the state had on hand as well as expected expenses and revenues. During his tenure as chief tax collector, Sharp was also tasked with establishing the Texas Performance Review, an ongoing audit of state government that Sharp said saved the state $8.5 billion. The project eventually branched out into auditing the state's K-12 schools, which is widely credited with saving $350 million.

Former legislators said Sharp, in the role of comptroller, earned a reputation as a no-nonsense businessman. Considered to be a conservative Democrat, Sharp was described by former colleagues as a politician who, for the most part, did a great job of working across party lines.

"The first few years that [the Texas Performance Reviews] were done, they were pretty doggone good because they identified some serious areas that needed improvement," said former Republican state Sen. Steve Ogden of Bryan, a longtime legislator who served as chairman of the finance committee. "I thought they were particularly good in the beginning, a big improvement in state government."

Ogden, who served as a junior House member on the appropriations committee at the time, said he sees parallels between Sharp's approach as comptroller and his actions as chancellor.

Former House appropriation committee member and longtime Republican legislator Talmadge Heflin had a similar opinion.

"With his history and propensity of trying to run an efficient shop, I think I would have been more surprised if they weren't undergoing that," Heflin said of the A&M System reviews.

When asked if his time as comptroller shaped his approach as chancellor, Sharp said, "There's no doubt." He said he has performed the same type of reviews since he was a freshman comptroller more than 20 years ago.

"Nobody wants to change," Sharp said. "But if you don't check it every now and then, every government organization will forget why it's there. Private organizations typically don't forget because they'll go broke."

His approach toward higher education is no different, and Sharp believes that, after the audits, A&M will be better off.

"Every single review I've ever done, and I've done dozens and dozens of school districts and practically every state agency, they all felt the same way ---- that we're not going to find any money," Sharp said. "Everybody is nervous, but at the end of virtually every review, teachers said we needed that."

Sharp, who was appointed as chancellor in 2011, said he planned the assessments from the get-go. The exception was the airport, Sharp said, which was reviewed because of performance complaints. The university is in the process of reviewing bids by companies seeking to manage the airport.

"You can't do them all at once," Sharp said of the examinations that started with the Compass Group deal. "These were all things that we talked about amongst ourselves and staff in the very first month I were here."

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