By Joshua Benton
This time, Lee Jackson got the job.
The Dallas County judge had been up for top education posts three times before: twice for superintendent of Dallas’ school system and once for Texas education commissioner. Each time, the job went to someone with more experience in education.
But the soon-to-be chancellor of the University of North Texas System said he always knew the leadership and management skills he demonstrated in government could be transferred to education.
“I’ve proven I can lead effectively in the public arena, and now I’ll bring those experiences to bear to benefit the UNT community,” he said Wednesday after regents named him as the lone finalist to succeed outgoing Chancellor Alfred Hurley.
Mr. Jackson has managed to be one of Dallas’ most powerful political figures for more than two decades without compiling a lengthy list of enemies. His friends credit his ability to build coalitions and draw disparate forces together.
“I think it’s a brilliant choice,” said Tom Luce, Dallas attorney and chairman of the National Center for Educational Accountability. “I can’t conceive of anybody who could do a better job.”
Born in Austin and raised in Dallas, Mr. Jackson decided on public service at an early age. A year after getting his bachelor’s degree from Duke University, he earned a master’s in public administration at Southern Methodist University. Soon after, he started work in the Dallas city manager’s office.
In 1976, he was elected to the Texas House of Representatives, where he served five terms, including time on the public education committee. He was elected Dallas County judge in 1986.
Mr. Jackson said the job has forced him to learn about areas of expertise unfamiliar to him, like transportation policy – a skill he said will be useful in learning about the university. He has been praised for stabilizing the county’s juvenile department and improving relationships between the commissioners court and other county officials.
“Lee has the ability to work with people,” said Commissioner Jim Jackson, a UNT alumnus. “He’s smart, he’s analytical, he can listen. He can help bring people together.”
Lee Jackson said he hasn’t particularly been trying to get a position in education – the three previous job opportunities were presented to him, he said, and he didn’t pursue them. When he announced he wouldn’t seek re-election last fall, he said he was “open to a variety of things. I wanted something challenging that would let me be as enthusiastic as I’ve been in this job.”
After UNT’s search consultant contacted him in April, it became apparent it would be a good match, he said.
In 1999, when Mr. Jackson was first up for the Dallas schools job, Dallas County GOP Chairman Bob Driegert declared it a 95 percent certainty that Mr. Jackson would get the job. But the school board ended up hiring San Francisco Superintendent Bill Rojas.
A year later, when the position opened again, the board voted 6-3 not to hire Mr. Jackson.
Mr. Jackson said he doesn’t want to talk about the DISD experience – “that’s an ancient issue for me,” he said – but one of the trustees who voted against him said it shouldn’t be interpreted as a criticism of his abilities.
“Everyone was very impressed with Judge Jackson,” said Ken Zornes, the current board president and chairman of the search committee in 2000. “He’s an outstanding person, completely qualified.”
That’s indicative of an apparent trend with Mr. Jackson: Even those who oppose him at one time or another say they respect his abilities and leadership skills.
“Judge is going to do an excellent job wherever he lands,” said County Commissioner John Wiley Price, the only Democrat on the Commissioners Court. “He’s got the interpersonal skills, the people skills, the leadership skills.”
Mr. Jackson’s experience working with universities is limited. In the mid-1970s, he spent two years as SMU’s assistant director for alumni giving. He also has taught history and government at Dallas community colleges.
As a nonacademic without a doctorate, he’s aware that some people may question choosing him to lead a university system. He predicted that he’ll prove any naysayers wrong.
“That’s the kind of issue that usually goes away in six months if the person in the job is effective,” he said. “And I expect to be effective.”