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Pete Gallego’s relatively short tenure as president of Sul Ross University was mired in conflict — from the campus to the Texas Capitol

The politician turned college president got stuck in a fight over which university system should manage the university. And he faced pushback from faculty and members of the Far West Texas community about his decisions and leadership style.

By Kate McGee, Texas Tribune

When Pete Gallego was named the  13th president of Sul Ross State University in 2020, he seemed a natural match for the tiny Far West Texas school.

Gallego is a native of Alpine, where Sul Ross is based, and had graduated from the university nearly  four decades earlier before going to law school. After working for years as a prosecutor, he launched a successful political career, first as a Texas legislator and eventually as a congressman for two years.

The president's job offered Gallego a homecoming of sorts, a chance for him to recalibrate after a bruising defeat in his final election campaign just two years prior. Who better to help tackle Sul Ross' nagging enrollment declines or work to unify the main Alpine campus with three satellite locations in the region than an actual alumnus and former congressman?

But whatever goals Gallego had in mind will remain unmaterialized. On Nov. 12, after only 18 months on the job, Gallego informed the university faculty and students in an eight-page letter that  he will be resigning on June 4 to spend more time with his 17-year-old son.

It was a surprising turn considering just six months prior, Gallego  had told The Texas Tribune that being president was the “single most fun job” he’s ever had and that he was “thrilled” to be there as long as his bosses — the Texas State University System Board of Regents and Chancellor Brian McCall — would have him.

But a closer look reveals that Gallego was hamstrung almost from the moment McCall tapped him in May 2020 as president. When Gallego arrived, there was little he could do about the long-simmering community resentment over the school's bosses — the Texas State University System — and any attempt to tackle the long-persistent enrollment declines at the school were stymied by a global pandemic.

Since he announced his resignation, Gallego has declined to respond to the Tribune’s multiple requests for an interview.

In notes to faculty, he has called his short tenure a "rousing success." And in his resignation letter, he pointed to a list of accomplishments: campuswide technology upgrades, more transparent budget processes and a better customer service experience for students. He also proudly pointed out that he was the first president to also serve as the announcer for home basketball and volleyball games.

For many, Gallego’s eventual departure fails to solve the issues they believe continue to plague the school that serves predominantly Hispanic, low-income and first-generation college students.

“There's some of these problems that come with Sul Ross right now,” said professor Joseph Velasco, vice president of the Faculty Assembly in Alpine. “We have retention and enrollment issues. There's a lot to try to fix.”

“Pete Gallego is a symptom”

By the time Gallego notified faculty and students he would be leaving in 2022, the mood at Sul Ross was anything but upbeat. Gallego's relatively short tenure has been mired in conflict from the campus level all the way to the Texas Legislature, according to Sul Ross faculty, community members and state lawmakers.

On the classroom side, faculty were concerned Gallego was making policy changes without their input, like increasing the number of courses they teach.

“They just come out as mandates and we were blindsided by them,” Velasco said.

Even a plan to cut down trees to conserve water on the desert campus early in Gallego’s tenure  drew criticism until he ultimately paused the project.

Off campus, Gallego faced serious pushback from a group of powerful, connected residents in the broader Far West Texas region who disliked how he was leading the only public university between El Paso and San Antonio and — at the same time — were also gunning to move the school away from the Texas State University System.

For many, the Texas State management was the bigger reason for all the discontent.

“Pete Gallego is just a symptom,” said J.P. Bryan, the wealthy Texas preservationist who owns the Gage Hotel in nearby Marathon. “The problem starts with Texas State.”

Yet even now, as Gallego approaches his final six months as president, system leaders, boosters and faculty remain at odds with each other over who should help lead the school through this next chapter, with fewer public conversations about how to actually serve the students who enroll there.

After Gallego announced his resignation, the Alpine faculty assembly proposed a vote of no confidence in Gallego and then walked it back, pitting professors against each other and leading to weeks of turmoil. Community members continue to squabble over who is running the school’s nonprofit foundation, which raises money for the school.

Rick Stephens, president of the Sul Ross Foundation, said he views the past year or so of conflict at Sul Ross as a classic story that is more about a community resistant to change.

“Pete Gallego is trying to do the right thing, but he stirred the pot,” Stephens said. “In a small community, where a lot of people have relationships, when oxes get gored, they fight back. … I think egos got in the way.”

The challenges

In May 2020, when McCall announced Gallego was the sole finalist for the position, faculty members — who had just issued a  vote of no confidence in Gallego's predecessor, Bill Kibler — were optimistic he would bring much needed leadership to the school.

Enrollment at the Alpine campus has declined 21% between 2015 and 2020 and stands at 1,485 this fall, according to  preliminary data from the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board.

Student enrollment at the three satellite campuses — where faculty and staff have complained about a lack of resources, including reliable wireless service —  has fallen 10% during that same time period to 841 this fall. Fewer students means less money from the state and from tuition dollars.

Gallego inherited a shrinking school struggling with its identity.The relationship between Sul Ross’ home base in Alpine and the satellite campuses — known collectively as Rio Grande College — had been strained for years with the campuses operating as separate entities.

While Sul Ross' Alpine campus looks like a more typical sprawling university campus, the three satellite schools that make up Rio Grande College consist of a few rented buildings. The satellites serve juniors and seniors in Del Rio, Eagle Pass and Uvalde coming out of the local community colleges.

For years, there has been talk of making the Rio Grande College sites more cohesive extensions of the one in Alpine. Currently, students enrolled in the three campuses that make up Rio Grande College pay less tuition than those at Alpine.

A proposal to leave Texas State

Then in early February, Gallego was delivered a gut punch from a political rival. State Sen.  Roland Gutierrez, D-San Antonio, filed legislation to pull Sul Ross out of the Texas State University System and place it in the Texas A&M University System, a proposal that has been discussed within the Alpine community  for almost a decade.

The move, if successful, would most certainly mean an ouster of Gallego because a new university system would likely put its own administrator in place.

Most public universities in Texas fall within a larger system. Sul Ross State has been part of the Texas State system since 1975, and the system also includes Texas State University in San Marcos, Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Lamar University in Beaumont, the Lamar State college campuses in Orange and Port Arthur, plus the Lamar Institute of Technology.

Gutierrez and others argued Sul Ross had been neglected by the Texas State system over the years. Gutierrez and his supporters said the declining enrollment and the school’s struggle to retain students they did have proved their point. They also raised concerns about presidential turnover. Sul Ross has had three presidents over the past decade who have all left after  a rift developed between community members or faculty.

The political history between Gutierrez and Gallego is deep. They  ran against each other in a bruising Democratic primary for state Senate in 2018, which Gallego won. Gallego lost in the general election against Republican Pete Flores. But Gutierrez ran again in 2020 and won.

Despite the fact that some residents wanted Sul Ross out of the Texas State system for years, Gallego said he was “blindsided” by Gutierrez’s bill, according to an interview he gave to the school  paper. And the threat of shifting Sul Ross to a new university system appeared to have rattled him.

In one private conversation with two faculty members, Gallego said he saw Gutierrez’s bill as political retribution, according to a recording of the meeting by one of the principals in it, a math professor named Michael Ortiz.

“It isn't about the system and it isn't about Sul Ross and the bill is not about policy. The bill is about politics,” Gallego says on the recording before adding that moving a school to a new system was the way to get rid of him.

When contacted by the Tribune, Gutierrez rejected the idea that he filed the legislation as some sort of political payback.

Later on the recording, Gallego is heard saying that he has heard that Gutierrez's legislation will “go away” if he decides to quit or is fired. He asks Ortiz, former president of the Faculty Senate at Rio Grande College, and Kathy Stein, head of the Faculty Assembly in Alpine, to get their faculty groups to pass a resolution stating they want to remain in the Texas State system. The one condition, Gallego said, is that the vote to stay with Texas State can’t be close because it wouldn’t “help him.”

“If the votes aren't lined up for this then I don't wanna do it,” he said. “If it's not going to be helpful, then don't kick me in the ass.”

Later that spring, the faculty at Sul Ross' three satellite campuses did the opposite of what Gallego requested and passed a resolution supporting a move to the Texas A&M system, delivering another blow to Gallego.

Wealthy community members chime in

This legislation to move Sul Ross into Texas A&M's orbit came with the blessing of some well-heeled friends. Among the wealthy business people and ranchers in the region who wanted to see change at Sul Ross State were  Bryan, Alpine businessman George Johnson and ranchers Ben Love and Katharine Armstrong. Armstrong, who is the former chair of the Texas Parks & Wildlife Commission, confirmed her support to the Tribune.

This core group said Gallego wasn’t the issue.

“​​There certainly were people that wanted to give Pete Gallego a chance,” said Carol Peterson, who manages the Gage Hotel and is married to Pete Peterson, the former president of the Sul Ross Foundation. “But at the same time it wasn’t a matter of Pete Gallego at all. It was just the years and years the Texas State system had seen a decline in performance at Sul Ross and there was a big amount of concern in the community.”

Peterson said she rallied the business community in the area to call legislators and ask them to support the move to the Texas A&M system.

A Texas A&M system spokesperson said the school has remained neutral on the issue since the bill was filed.

Then in March, the pressure to move Sul Ross into Aggieland’s orbit mounted. Bryan’s company, Gage Properties, went a step further and hired Republican lobbyist  Allen Blakemore, to push the Gutierrez legislation toward the finish line and get it passed. Blakemore has close ties to Lt. Gov.  Dan Patrick and helped him unseat former Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst in 2014. Bryan said he hired Blakemore to convince Republican lawmakers to support the measure.

But even after Gage Properties paid between $18,630 and $46,579.99, per Texas Ethics Commission filings, the bill failed to even get a committee hearing.

Blakemore did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Gutierrez also told the Tribune his reasons for filing his bill were Sul Ross' bleeding enrollment numbers, growing concern from residents about the school and the fact he was unable to get a clear answer from McCall, the chancellor, about his plan for the school.

Mike Wintemute, the spokesperson for the Texas State system, said in an email that Gutierrez received a “timely response” to his request, which included a copy of the university’s  five-year strategic plan.

The Texas State system, Wintemute said, has a more hands-off management style than other systems across the state. The system, he explained, believes the schools work best under local control, with the system providing oversight and accountability.

He pointed out that while enrollment is still down at Sul Ross, graduation rates are up — with room for improvement — and students are taking fewer unnecessary courses on the way to completing a degree. A recently appointed provost,  Bernardo Canteñs, will start next month and is charged with addressing faculty concerns, Wintemute wrote.

McCall declined multiple requests from Tribune to be interviewed for this story.

After Gutierrez’s bill failed to gain traction with other lawmakers, another blow was heading Alpine's way during the Legislature's third special session, which ended Oct. 19.

Surprisingly and at the last minute, Sul Ross  was pulled from a list of public universities that were to receive state funding for new construction projects.

Originally, $59 million had been allocated for two buildings at Sul Ross but at the last minute the money was moved back to Texas State University in San Marcos instead.

Curiously, less than a week after Gallego made his departure known, the Texas State system's board of regents quietly voted to shift that money back to Sul Ross, pending approval by Gov.  Greg Abbott, who had 30 days to reject the decision. Representatives from the Texas State system said they have not heard any objection so far.

Fighting with the foundation

Around the same time Bryan and others hired Blakemore to push the legislation, Gallego’s relationship with the Sul Ross Foundation, the separate fundraising nonprofit for the school, was collapsing, according to Stephens, the current foundation's president, and his predecessor, Pete Peterson.

Peterson and another former foundation board member, George Johnson, said that upon Gallego's arrival, the newly installed president began making specific requests for funding when the board did not have discretionary money to provide.

In one instance, Peterson said Gallego asked to borrow from the $5 million donation given by Miriam McCoy, whose family owns McCoy Building Supply, to build a new space for the Museum of the Big Bend on campus.

When board members denied the request, insisting they cannot reallocate funds that have been donated for a specific purpose, Peterson said Gallego became “increasingly hostile to the board.”

Stephens, the current foundation president, disagreed with Peterson's assessment. He said the McCoy check had been written to the university, not the foundation, and Gallego just wanted to make sure it was properly accounted for. Stephens said the McCoys continue to support the university.

But by late March, the relationship between the foundation board and Gallego completely deteriorated. Gallego sent a letter to the foundation alerting them he was severing ties and instructed the group to transfer all funds to the university by the end of April.

The group tapped Craig Enoch, a former Texas Supreme Court associate justice, to provide legal help. Ultimately, Enoch said the two sides came to an agreement and the foundation board members resigned. As they resigned, they appointed three replacements. Stephens was ultimately elected as the new president.

To local residents, the move to terminate the relationship with the foundation upset some who felt it was another example of poor leadership at the school.

But Gallego stood by his decision. In a weekly email to the university in May, Gallego praised the newly created board and said they were more diverse and were “already starting to repair issues caused by the former board.” Stephens said the board has a new strategic plan and is about to launch a capital campaign.

Still, despite Gallego’s plan to leave, the future of Sul Ross has created a rift between residents who say their goal is the same: to see Sul Ross thrive. That contentious relationship is most clear between former and current foundation members who believe they know the best path forward.

Stephens said at least one previous board member, Johnson, continues to send him text messages saying that the broader community was unhappy with Gallego and they are also working to remove Stephens from the foundation board. The day Gallego resigned, Johnson sent Stephens a text.

“You’re next. Get your plane fired up,” Johnson wrote to Stephens, who provided copies of the text messages to the Tribune.

Johnson wrote to Stephens again on Dec. 9 that the Texas State Board of Regents was looking to terminate the foundation board, which the Texas State system denies.

“Pete the prick can’t help you,” Johnson wrote to Stephens. “Better head back to the Indians in Cali.”

Stephens is Native American. Johnson dismissed the text messages as “nothing more than somebody being mad at somebody” and claimed Stephens was not Native American.

Stephens provided a copy of his tribal identification card to the Tribune.

“We need to heal”

As the infighting within the Alpine community and the political maneuvering from Austin to the West Texas high desert continues, it’s unclear if and how the different factions can come together to best serve the students who attend this university.

Gutierrez has pledged to file his bill to remove the school from the Texas State University System again next legislative session. Some in the region say they will continue to support that transition. They are more confident it will pass during the next session since they have more time to speak with lawmakers and rally support in the capitol.

Meanwhile, the Texas State system leadership continues to believe they are the right leaders for the school. Wintemute said the Texas State system's board of regents plans to start looking for a new president this spring.

Velasco, the vice president of the Faculty Assembly in Alpine, said faculty who remain at the university are also deeply divided. Many are just trying to get through this next semester, scared to speak out against Gallego for fear of retaliation.

“We need to heal, and the next president — whoever she or he is — needs to be someone who listens and who really unites us through,” he said.

Mitch Borden is Permian Basin Reporter & Producer at Marfa Public Radio.