Texas A&M Chancellor John Sharp will retire next June

Texas A&M Chancellor John Sharp looks at a shelf with photos mementos outside his office on March 27, 2023 in College Station. Texas A&M’s longest serving chancellor has announced he will retire in June 2025. Credit: Sergio Flores for The Texas Tribune

John Sharp, Texas A&M’s longest serving chancellor who has transformed the university system and boosted the flagship’s academic and athletic brands over his 13 years at the helm, will retire in June 2025.

Citing a desire to “always go out on top,” Sharp, 73, said in an interview with The Texas Tribune that he had accomplished most of what he had set out to achieve, from acquiring a law school to building a 2,000-acre high-tech campus called RELLIS for defense research and testing.

“We’ve done some amazing things, and over the next year there’s going to be some more amazing things, and I’m not sure after this next year it can be topped,” Sharp said with a chuckle. “It seemed to be a pretty good time to say hey, it’s been a great ride, and it’s time for someone else to take the reins.”

Sharp informed the Board of Regents several weeks ago and announced his retirement to staff on Monday morning. The regents will conduct a national search in the coming months for Sharp’s successor.

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“It’s an understatement to say we have giant boots to fill,” Regents Chair Bill Mahomes said in a statement.

Sharp’s impending exit from his alma mater sets off a seismic change across Texas’ higher education and political landscape where he is one of the most well-known and influential leaders. The charismatic and ambitious Aggie has presided over an enormous expansion of the A&M system, which now includes 11 universities, eight state agencies and more than 150,000 students.

Under Sharp, the College Station flagship ballooned into the nation’s largest university, with more than 77,000 students — an increase of more than 50% since he stepped into his role.

After the system acquired Texas Wesleyan University’s law school in 2012, it shot up 57 spots in five years and is now ranked one of the nation’s top 30 law programs.

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Sharp also elevated the football team, overseeing a nearly half a billion dollar expansion of Kyle Field and moving the Aggies into the Southeastern Conference. The team has risen in the ranks earning six bowl game wins since 2011, compared to just one bowl win in the 14 years before Sharp took the reins. However, Sharp has fallen short of his promise to deliver a national championship.

“The A&M System has become a dynamo nationally since John Sharp became chancellor,” said Phil Adams, who served on the Board of Regents during the first 10 years of Sharp’s tenure, in a statement. “Every year he had a big idea, and it got done.”

A former legislator and statewide elected official, Sharp’s political dynamism has often been compared to former President Lyndon B. Johnson, another conservative Democrat from rural Texas. He has proven remarkably adept at navigating the thorny politics of higher education at a time when the Republican Legislature has become increasingly critical of university curriculum and culture. In the most recent legislative session, Sharp secured $1 billion in new funding for the system, an all-time high.

He teased at yet-to-be announced projects in the works that, if they come to fruition, could bring the biggest economic development to the Brazos Valley since the founding of A&M.

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“We wake up every morning and don’t limit ourselves on ideas,” Sharp said. “Some of them are good and some of them turn out bad, and the ones that are good, we go to the Legislature and ask for money, and they’ve been great to us.”

That higher education governance has become increasingly political has flustered many university leaders who rose through the ranks of academia. But not Sharp, whose background as a politician makes him uniquely equipped to bend the Legislature to his will.

Sharp, a Blue Dog Democrat from Victoria County, served in the Corps of Cadets and as student body president at Texas A&M. After stints in the state House and Senate before, he was elected to the statewide Railroad Commission in 1986. He won office twice as the state comptroller and in 1998 ran for lieutenant governor against Rick Perry — his onetime dormmate when the pair were A&M undergraduates. Sharp narrowly lost the race, and with the Republican Party ascendant, his future in electoral politics was dim.

Yet he remained close with Perry, and it was a Board of Regents appointed by the governor that hired Sharp to run the A&M System in 2011. His hiring as an outsider was greeted with skepticism with some professors and administrators. He demonstrated impatience with the lethargic pace of decision making in higher education. He possesses frenetic energy and an occasionally short temper.

But even his detractors concede that his tenacity and penchant for showmanship have transformed the A&M System in a way no previous chancellor had done. He added the “Texas A&M” brand to several government agencies within the system, including the state’s emergency management department. To the particular delight of fellow Aggies, Sharp helped the system beat out the University of Texas to co-manage and operate the Los Alamos National Laboratory, which handles radioactive and weapons-grade nuclear material.

Sharp attributes the steadfast support from state leaders in part to the fact that as the A&M System has grown in size and prestige, it has maintained the same culture as when he attended in the 1970s.

“Nobody calls us anybody’s little brother anymore,” Sharp said. “But we still have a student body that’s full of patriotism, that’s full of selfless service, that’s committed to the country and state.”

He acknowledged criticism by conservative voters and politicians that universities have become too liberal. He bristles at criticism from the far right publication Texas Scorecard that A&M has “gone woke” for policies promoting diversity. The website also attacked A&M’s president for acknowledging the concept of white privilege and criticized the school for offering glasses on LGBTQIA+ topics.

Sharp said A&M is anything but a haven for leftists. He challenged critics to find another public university where thousands of students gather in the basketball arena for weekly Bible study, as they do at A&M. The system sent out a press release, with a glowing quote from Sharp, when A&M was named the 13th most conservative college campus by Niche College Rankings.

In recent years, Sharp has taken heat on campus for not doing more to defend the interests of diverse students and faculty that have found themselves in the Legislature’s political crosshairs.

Last year, Texas A&M was involved in an embarrassing and expensive scandal after offering and then rescinding a job a Black journalism professor after conservative board members raised concerns that she would promote diversity, equity and inclusion curriculum because of her credentials. The professor, Kathleen McElroy, ended up settling with Texas A&M for $1 million.

Days later, the Tribune reported Sharp was involved in the suspension of a professor who was accused by a politically connected student of criticizing Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick during a lecture.

Both cases set off accusations of political interference at A&M and raised questions about how university officials like Sharp value diversity.

But those questions do not come, at least publicly, from the regents that employ Sharp and who in 2021 gave him a whopping 7-year contract extension. While nominally a Democrat, Sharp also does not publicly criticize the Republicans who control state government and appoint regents, nor does he campaign for the Democrats that challenge them.

At times, he is accommodating to his benefactors in the Capitol. When Gov. Greg Abbott prohibited state agencies and public universities from considering diversity in hiring decisions, Sharp prohibited the consideration of race in admissions, even though Texas A&M had not done this in practice for 20 years.

And even when Sharp felt he had no choice but to disagree with state leaders, he found creative solutions. When Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick pushed to end faculty tenure — a move Sharp knew would torpedo A&M’s future as a magnet for world-class professors — Sharp proposed lawmakers simply codify the system’s existing tenure policies into law, which allowed for the firing of faculty in limited circumstances.

It was the kind of Sharp masterstroke that demonstrated why he is the longest-serving chancellor on A&M system history.

But finding a successor with such a unique skill set may be a challenge, as Sharp acknowledged the post he leaves is far more complex than the one he inherited. He declined to share his advice for the regents in their selection, but said he is committed to helping the new chancellor settle into the role before he departs next June.

“(The regents) wanted me to stay through the legislative session one more time to help with that,” Sharp said. “I’ll bring the new chancellor with me.”

Kate McGee contributed reporting.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune.