WASHINGTON -- President Clinton is expected to nominate Shirley Sears Chater, a Texas university president, as head of the Social Security Administration, ending a lengthy search, administration officials said yesterday.
Dr. Chater, 60, is considered a strong manager but has no background in Social Security issues, which affect virtually all Americans at some point in their lives. She currently heads Texas Woman's University, the largest predominantly female university in the country.
Administration officials said Mr. Clinton is also expected to name Lawrence H. Thompson, assistant comptroller general of the congressional General Accounting Office and a former associate Social Security commissioner, as principal deputy commissioner.
Social Security employs 65,000 nationally -- including 14,000 at its Woodlawn and downtown Baltimore offices. The commissioner's job pays $115,700 and is being filled on an acting basis by Louis D. Enoff, the principal deputy commissioner. Administration officials had no comment on the future role of Mr. Enoff, 50, with the agency since 1964.
Neither Dr. Chater nor Mr. Thompson, 49, has been officially nominated. Administration officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said there would be no formal announcement until a review of their candidacies is completed.
Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the New York Democrat who has been calling on the administration for months to name a new Social Security chief, was unaware that Dr. Chater had been chosen to head the agency, according to an aide to the senator, who presides over the committee that would conduct the confirmation hearing.
As the senator has done in the past, Mr. Moynihan plans to introduce legislation next week to make the Social Security Administration an independent agency -- a plan opposed by Health and Human Services Secretary Donna E. Shalala and previous secretaries. Texas Woman's University is a public university in the north central Texas city of Denton, with 9,600 students, 92 percent of whom are women.
Most of the administrators are women, and they work with Dr. Chater in a management system in which authority is shared.
"If she needs to make a decision, she does," a school spokeswoman, Ann Hatch, said yesterday. "But she shares a lot of the planning and decision-making with executive staff on down to department heads."
Established in 1901, the school emphasizes liberal arts and health specialties, including nursing.
Dr. Chater, who is married and has two grown children, has bachelor's and master's degrees in nursing and a doctorate in education from the University of California at Berkeley.
In 1991, Texas Gov. Ann F. Richards chose Dr. Chater to chair a task force that held public hearings across the state on citizens' health care problems. Among its recommendations were that the state provide health insurance to all children and pregnant women.
Administration officials are particularly wary of discussing the commissioner's post because it has been left unfilled for so long and because four months ago there appeared to be a probable nominee, James Morrison, a Washington consultant. Mr.Morrison, the choice of Ms. Shalala, withdrew because, he said, the White House was unable to make a final decision.
A Senate aide and a union official familiar with the administration's search for a commissioner said Ms. Shalala pushed for Dr. Chater because of her experience as an administrator. "She wanted someone who was a manager, not a policy type, someone who could run that bureaucracy," said a Senate aide.
White House officials, however, advocated a former secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare, John J. White Jr., who was supported by union leaders and Sen. Harris Wofford, a Pennsylvania Democrat.
Ms. Shalala, former chancellor of the University of Wisconsin, appears to be personally acquainted with Dr. Chater, who has been president of Texas Woman's University since 1986.
Dr. Chater was also a colleague of Dr. Philip Lee, the new Health and Human Services assistant secretary for health, at the University of California, San Francisco, where she was vice chancellor for academic affairs and he was chancellor of the medical school.
Despite her lack of Social Security expertise, Dr. Chater was praised yesterday by former Social Security Commissioner Robert M. Ball, who met with her several weeks ago.
"She seemed to have really very good experience as an administrator and very much interest in this job, and with a good set of values. And I look forward to having her there," said Mr. Ball, who is chairman of the board of the National Academy of Social Insurance, a nonprofit research and educational institute.
She is "clearly earnest," "responsive to people and bright," Mr. Ball said.
Mr. Thompson, who would be her deputy, is "one of a very small handful of Social Security experts in the country," Mr. Ball added. "He knows
the system inside out. . . . It's a good team."
Labor union officials said they didn't know Dr. Chater well enough to comment.
"I guess for me the slate is blank," said John Sturdivant, president of the American Federation of Government Employees, the largest union at Social Security. "We want to have someone we can work with. We had a tremendous working relationship with the former commissioner," Gwendolyn King, who resigned Sept. 30 to become vice president at the Philadelphia Electric Co.
Mr. Sturdivant said "there's been some serious damage" done by not having a commissioner in place for nearly 10 months. "Just not having clear direction and kind of drifting," he said.
Praise from AARP
Martin Corry, director of federal affairs for the American Association of Retired Persons, noted that Dr. Chater "has run a very large university -- and that's good experience. The academic world can be a highly politically charged one."
There was no immediate reaction from Maryland members of Congress.
Dr. Chater was traveling and could not be reached for comment. Mr. Thompson said he had no comment.
At Texas Woman's University, a faculty leader strongly praised Dr. Chater.
"She is an outstanding administrator," said Marian Jernigan, immediate past speaker of the faculty senate. "She listens, she's inclusive. She's a caring individual and has a positive relationship with students and faculty. One of her major concerns is health care."
Shirley Sears Chater
Born: July 30, 1932; Shamokin, Penn.
Education: University of Pennsylvania, B.S. in nursing, 1956; University of California, San Francisco, M.S. in nursing, 1960; University of California, Berkeley, Ph.D in nursing, 1964.
Experience: President of Texas Woman's University, 1986-present; chair of Texas Health Policy Task Force, 1991-1992; vice-chancellor for academic affairs, University of California, San Francisco, 1977-1982; faculty appointments in department of Social and Behavioral Sciences, School of Nursing, University of California, San Francisco, and school of Education, University of California, Berkeley, 1972-1986.
Reputation: Well-regarded as president of Texas Woman's University, known for open management style. Little direct experience with issues facing Social Security Administration.