2016 is a transitional year for presidents, both in the Oval Office and at Texas Tech.
Unlike for U.S. presidential candidates, who strive over months or even years to get the job, for John Opperman the opportunity came unexpectedly.
Opperman, who is Tech’s interim president, took office after the January resignation of M. Duane Nellis. He said he has enjoyed his work in the last month, getting to know people and learning the ins and outs of how the university operates.
“Obviously, it’s a lot of responsibility, and there’s a lot of things to go over, but there’s a really good staff around me,” Opperman said.
Ben Sharp, a student assistant in Tech’s president’s office, said the transition happened very quickly. He said that when he left one Friday, Nellis’ name was still on the door, and by Monday morning, Opperman’s had replaced it. The reasons for Nellis’s resignation were between him and Chancellor Robert Duncan, Opperman said.
“It was kind of an unfortunate turn of events,” Opperman said.
Nellis, who served as the president for two and a half years, will receive his presidential salary of over $36,000 a month until June 15, at the end of his official contract, show documents The Hub@TTU obtained through the Texas Public Information Act. Not including additional perks, as president of Texas Tech, Nellis made more annually than the President of the United States.
Nellis, who was unavailable for comment on his resignation, will still hold his tenured position as a professor of geosciences. As of June 16, Nellis will receive his tenured professor salary of $250,000, which is subject to normal university merit increases based on evaluation.
Opperman comes into the interim position after working for 20 years in the Texas State Legislature. He has worked at Tech since 1996. Before being chosen for the interim position, he was vice chancellor for academic affairs at the system level.
He received his undergraduate degree in psychology and his master’s in political affairs from Tech, and his doctoral degree in economics from the University of Texas at Austin.
Accepting the position led to some changes in Opperman’s family life. He lives in Lubbock and has family here, but his wife lives in Austin. He said she stayed there because they have a new grandchild.
The distance has been manageable, he said, because he tries to go to Austin whenever he can, and she does the same with visiting Lubbock.
“I’m kind of getting a little more used to it,” Opperman said. “The first couple of weeks were kind of difficult, but I feel like I’m kind of getting in a routine now.”
Tech’s president oversees almost everything that happens at the university. Opperman said his new position has required him to refocus from a small range to a large spectrum of issues.
“Coming into this role, you suddenly have a hands-on ability to touch everything at the university,” Opperman said. “That’s been a learning experience that’s all been very good.”
While his favorite part of the job is learning, his least favorite is the lack of control over his schedule. In previous positions, he had the ability to schedule his own calendar, but as interim president, his attendance is needed in so many places that there is no way he could manage his schedule himself.
Opperman’s job involves attending board meetings, discussions about understanding campus carry, enrollment and retention decisions, and budget hearings.
Campus carry, an issue at the forefront of most students’ and school administrators’ minds, is also important to Opperman and other administrators, who are working to understand what the legislators’ intent was when they passed Senate Bill 11. The state legislation gave schools the right to ban guns from certain areas of campus, as long as the they do not make general prohibitions, such as outlawing guns in all classrooms.
He said administrators are still a few weeks away from sending their recommendations to the state.
Since Tech earned Tier One research status, which previous president Nellis worked hard to achieve, Opperman said many presidents from other schools have reached out to congratulate him. He said the new status entails a level of recognition that Tech truly deserves.
“I think Texas Tech at a national level is somewhat of an unknown quantity,” Opperman said, adding that this new status could help change that.
As a student assistant, Sharp said he noticed quirky, small differences between the two presidents. Not only do they like their tea differently, but they also have different personalities, too. Sharp described Nellis as more goofy and academic, while Opperman is more chill and personable.
The biggest thing Sharp said he took away from the change was this: “Texas Tech keeps going no matter who is at the helm of the university.”
Even though he is only a month in, Opperman said there were a lot of things he hoped to work on during his interim presidency.
“I’m still learning as much as I can and trying to be as helpful as I can,” he said. “I know there are still a lot of things we can do to get better and those are the things I want to work on during this interim.”