UT President Ends Tough Year With Another Battle

University of Texas at Austin President, William Powers - Dec. 14, 2011
University of Texas at Austin President, William Powers - Dec. 14, 2011

For Bill Powers, 2011 has been a year full of upheavals.

Certain issues were foreseeable for the president of the University of Texas at Austin, the state’s largest and arguably most prestigious public university. State lawmakers were heading into a legislative session with budget axes at the ready, and nationally there were questions about the value of higher education.

Then, in early February, when he should have been testifying at the Capitol about the university’s financial needs, Powers suffered a pulmonary embolism. He was in the hospital for a week.

It was the first struggle in a year marked by high-profile battles involving Powers — to some, the university’s very own Dumbledore; to others, a particularly large bee in the bonnet of higher education reformers.

“How you do in challenging times is more important than how you do in easy times,” Powers said Wednesday in an interview with The Texas Tribune, acknowledging that the last 12 months fell into the challenging category.

Most recently, on Dec. 8, Powers demanded — and received — the resignation of Lawrence Sager as dean of the School of Law. Powers, who had formerly held the post, said the move was necessary to quell unrest among a deeply divided faculty. “You can’t have a unit be productive, frankly, both on the teaching and on the research side, if there’s not a sense of common enterprise,” he said. “And for whatever reason, that has broken down.”

Powers and Stefanie Lindquist, the interim dean of the law school, are now trying to calm the waters. Sager’s abrupt departure put an uncomfortable spotlight on the strained personal relationship between the two men, and it has also drawn scrutiny of the role private foundations play in the university’s finances.

Tensions at the law school spiked following the distribution of 75 pages of documents requested from the university by three faculty members. The records, which have since been made public online, reveal complaints about gender equity at the school and detail the use of money from the University of Texas Law School Foundation, a separate nonprofit organization, to supplement faculty salaries — including a $500,000 “forgivable loan” made in 2009 to Sager.

A day after Sager stepped down, Francisco Cigarroa, chancellor of the University of Texas System, called for a review of how “funds flow to the law school from the foundation” and “how these decisions are made” in order to “enhance processes, procedures and controls for those transactions in the future.” Cigarroa said the review’s findings would help establish “clear and transparent guidelines” for all the university’s institutions and affiliated foundations.

The law school revelation has provided fodder for groups already critical of the university’s financial management. The fact that Powers’ and Sager’s accounts of who knew about the loan differ — Powers said he did not; Sager said it was his “clear understanding” that he did — is a “cause for concern” that highlights a need for greater transparency, said Thomas Lindsay, the director of the Texas Public Policy Foundation’s Center for Higher Education.

“In a time when there’s real questioning of the motives of large institutions, this sort of stuff doesn’t help,” said Lindsay, a recent hire by the center, which has close ties to Gov. Rick Perry and provided the fuel for the debate last spring over the public university’s productivity.

Not long after Powers was discharged from the hospital in February, Gene Powell, the new Perry-appointed chairman of the University of Texas System Board of Regents, hired Rick O’Donnell, a former director of Colorado’s department of higher education, as a special adviser. O’Donnell’s employment was terminated after 49 days.

But O’Donnell’s provocative questioning of the value of academic research and his ties to the Texas Public Policy Foundation — which had promoted a set of seven higher education proposals that many academics found misguided — prompted questions about the direction in which the system was headed and significant backlash from well-heeled alumni. So did the arrival of three new regents appointed by Perry, whose staff members referred to the group as their “kick-ass regents.”

The furor reached such heights that Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and the House speaker, Joe Straus, both Republicans, created a new joint oversight committee focused on higher education governance and transparency.

At a recent hearing of the committee, Senator Judith Zaffirini, Democrat of Laredo and the co-chairwoman, asked Powell if he had any intention of firing Powers — something Powers said was “not something I spend much time worrying about.” (Powell said he did not intend to fire Powers.)

In August, Cigarroa unveiled a new framework for the University of Texas System that was embraced by both sides, and tempers cooled. But in September, Powers still referred to the higher education community as “a house divided” in his State of the University address. He said this week that “divisions remain over what’s the right direction to go” across the state and the nation.

On the campus, support for Powers is far-reaching. A performance review prepared by University of Texas System staff members for Cigarroa and the board in late spring noted: “There is a tangible pride in what is being achieved, shared by all, and campus-wide appreciation and support of President Powers. Such universal support is rare on a campus, but suffice to say that at UT Austin, Bill Powers has earned it through his exemplary leadership.”

But the University of Texas does not exist in a vacuum, and sometimes other campuses can create problems. In addition to Powers’ other dramas, the football team played what could be its very last Thanksgiving Day matchup against its longtime rival Texas A&M after the Aggies’ move to the Southeastern Conference. “There has not been a meeting that says, ‘Okay, that question has been decided,’” Powers said, adding, “We try to deal with issues that we’ve got to deal with now.”

Perhaps in another year — one without continuing upheaval over the nature of public higher education or legislative budget cuts or an unpleasant regime change at the law school — such a significant break from tradition might rank higher.

“Would I have guessed there would be all of those in one year? That’s my job,” Powers said. “Hopefully, I won’t have a pulmonary embolism next year.”

 

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