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John Sharp Says Los Alamos Is Safe In A&M’s Hands

Gabriel C. Pérez/KUT
Texas A&M Chancellor John Sharp

From Texas Standard:

The audio above is an extended version of an interview with Texas A&M Chancellor, John Sharp that aired on Texas Standard today. In it, Sharp addresses the university’s management of Los Alamos National Lab, pay for college administrators, and student loan debt, among other topics.

The national weapons lab that gave the world the atomic bomb will soon be under the management of the Texas A&M University System, and its partners. The annual contract to manage the Los Alamos National Laboratory is worth $2.5 billion. The New Mexico facility is the country's top center for nuclear research, and A&M takes over with its partners after its previous managers made some security missteps.

This is the first time a Texas university will become a co-equal partner of any of the United States’ national labs. While the partnership will give A&M researchers access to the Los Alamos labs, it also provides a unique opportunity for A&M to give back to the country, according to Texas A&M Chancellor, John Sharp.  

“One of the core values of Texas A&M, as a land grant institution, is service to the country,” Sharp says. “And so, I may sound trite, but that’s what we believe in, and I think this is certainly one way we can be of great service to our country.”

Texas A&M won’t be going it alone, however. The University of California System has been a longtime Los Alamos partner, and that isn’t changing with A&M coming on board. Some changes, however, are inevitable and for the best, according to Sharp.

“We recognize that there’s going to be some changes,” Sharp says. “But we intend to make sure mistakes of the past don’t happen again.”

Security at Los Alamos has become increasingly important, with a stolen plutonium rod showing up in San Antonio. Sharp says that Texas A&M was chosen to manage the lab because of its high security rating. According to Sharp, the Defense Security Agency names Texas A&M the top defense contractor for security in the United States.

“In other words, we topped all universities and topped all private sector [companies],” Sharp says. “We were better at security than Lockheed, Boeing, Northrop Grumman, all of the different defense contractors.”

A&M has gained its fair share of experience in security. It needed to, since hackers try to get into A&M’s computer systems about 1 million times every month, according to Sharp. They come from all over the world, from Russia, to China, and from even inside the United States.

High pay, and the high cost of college

Texas is home to four of the five highest-paid university executives in the United States, and Sharp ranks number nine. He says any potential flak stemming from his high salary is unwarranted. According to Sharp, A&M spends its money very wisely.

“Texas A&M has the lowest administrative cost ratio of not only any university in the state but any state agency [in Texas],” Sharp says.

WIth the rising costs of college, Sharp believes that students should try to be wise with their money as well.

“What I tell kids, if you have to go into debt your freshman year to come to university, go to a community college first,” Sharp says. “Because if you’re going to become a teacher, and you have a debt of $80,000 on a salary that’s $40,000 a year, you’re not doing yourself any favors.”

Outside of debt, Sharp believes the biggest issue at the student level is accessibility to higher education, given the growth of Texas.

“You’ve got a state that's growing by leaps and bounds, do you stay exactly where you are, do you freeze the size of your school?” Sharp says. “Or do you say, hey, we're a public institution, our job is to create opportunity and let more kids in.”

Texas A&M has opted to grow, with the number of students going up from 14,000 students to about 60,000 today. This growth adds to the cost of running a university, and therefore adds to higher endowments and tuitions. However, Texas A&M also sets aside money for scholarships and disaster funds. The latter of these are used to help students who have experienced disaster, such as Hurricane Harvey.

Do we need a new vet school?

One issue recently raised by residents of west Texas is the lack of adequate veterinary care. Sharp spoke on the difficulty of maintaining a veterinary school. Texas A&M is home to one of the best in the country.

“It’s one of the most expensive things that you do,” Sharp says. “The legislature doesn’t even come close to appropriating the money for vet school.”

A&M subsidizes its veterinary school with $10 to $20 million, and is increasing enrollment in the future. Sharp doesn’t believe the Texas needs two vet schools.

“The Coordinating Board is the expert on this,” Sharp says. “Take your plan to the coordinating board if you want a vet school, but I don’t think anyone that has looked at it from the point of the state.”

Will the Aggies and Horns ever meet in football again

As to a revival of a the college football rivalry between A&M and UT, Sharp says he tried, but the chance of the Aggies going face to face with the Longhorns anytime soon doesn’t look very good.

“I went to see [former UT] President Powers and Chancellor Sigueroa, ‘let’s play the game,’” Sharp says. “I was told there was no interest in playing the game, so forget about it.”

Written by Kevin Wheeler.

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