When UT Appeared to Be in UVA's Shoes, Many Spoke Out

Bill Powers, president of the University of Texas at Austin, at a TribLive event on April 28, 2011.
Bill Powers, president of the University of Texas at Austin, at a TribLive event on April 28, 2011.

On Tuesday, the University of Virginia reinstated President Teresa Sullivan after her forced resignation this month sparked a dramatic outcry. Throughout the ordeal, observers have drawn parallels to Sullivan’s former stomping grounds: the University of Texas at Austin, where she worked for nearly three decades.

For the last year and a half, speculation has swirled about the intentions of some University of Texas System regents. Many feared that those regents — appointed by Gov. Rick Perry — were put in place to implement a controversial set of dramatic policy changes the governor had promoted that some criticized for being anti-academic and overly business-minded. So when Sullivan was abruptly terminated at UVA, apparently over her opposition to her board’s eagerness to push rapid top-down changes, UT observers’ antennas perked up.

“The situation in Virginia basically validates the need for our coalition,” said Melinda Hill Perrin, a UT booster and an executive committee member for the Texas Coalition for Excellence in Higher Education. The group formed in 2011 amid fears that the UT President Bill Powers and University of Texas System Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa might be at risk of losing their jobs over the controversy surrounding proposed reforms.

The issue flared up again in May after Paul Burka of Texas Monthly blogged that Powers’ job might once again be in jeopardy after he publicly expressed disappointment in the regents’ decision to deny his university a requested tuition increase. And the immediate public reaction to the blog post — as laid out in emails obtained by The Texas Tribune — was pronounced and an indicator of the outcry that could follow if Powers were dismissed.

Burka’s May 9 post alleged that Gene Powell, the chairman of the UT board of regents, had asked Cigarroa to recommend Powers’ termination. Both Powell and Cigarroa have denied this, but Powers’ declaration had certainly gotten their attention.

“Chancellor, I would like to visit with you about this when you have time,” Powell emailed on May 3, attaching Powers’ comments about the tuition freeze. To which Cigarroa promptly responded, “Agree. Available tomorrow at your convenience.”

After Burka’s post went up, UT supporters kicked into high gear, creating a Facebook group that initially drew attention for the rapidity with which it seemed to acquire thousands of followers, which was quickly replaced by backlash as people learned that the total was artificially inflated. 

But just because the Facebook response was overblown does not mean there wasn’t a response. The Tribune reviewed more than 650 emails that the regents had received by the end of that week in May, and the response was overwhelmingly in support of Powers. The names of senders were redacted by the UT system.

In less than three days, the regents received more than 600 emails conveying clear disapproval of a potential dismissal of Powers.  They came from alumni, current students, parents and faculty and staff — even some from other institutions. Messages were sent from Australia, Romania, England, Bahrain, Beirut, China and around the U.S.

Supporters were varied in their approach. Some were short and sweet — “Bill Powers is the Man,” one read — and others were hundreds of words. Some were threatening: “I would strongly suggest this issue be resolved soon or you will feel the full brunt of Longhorn nation upon you,” wrote someone from the Class of 1981. Another read: “To fire Powers is to desecrate the name in which the fibers of our country were born.”

Many accused the regents of doing Perry’s bidding, while one person, expressing dismay at the possibility of Powers being fired, asked “Is Obama and/or socialism running our school?”

Only about 10 of the emails called for regents to cut ties with Powers. “I hope you decide to carry through with this action and replace Powers with a president that is more in touch with students, staff and faculty at the University,” wrote one graduate student.

One person who told the regents that Powers should go added, “At the same time, I’m no fan of you folk, either. Until I feel that the UT System is being run by individuals whose top priority is educating the state’s youth, no alumni dollars will flow from me.”

Some who attempted to be supportive of Powers ended up showing a lack of awareness about the situation’s particulars. One email called on the regents to “keep Bill Powell,” another derided “an attempt, by the current occupant of the rent house serving as a Governors Mansion, to force out President Bowers,” and yet a third expressed “support of Dr. Faulkner” — Larry Faulkner hasn’t been president of UT since 2006.

These examples were outliers, however.

A number of writers threatened to withhold future financial support for the university should the president be forced out, and another common thread was concern about potential damage to the university’s reputation. A member of the Class of 1979 warned that “spineless toadies are the only people who would apply” for the presidency after such an action.

In the immediate aftermath of Burka’s blog post and the subsequent reaction, at a meeting of UT’s faculty council, Powers expressed thanks for the outpouring of support he had received. On Tuesday, a spokesman for Powers said they would let the hundreds of newly released emails sent to the regents speak for themselves.

Cigarroa said of the influx of correspondence on the matter: “I was appreciative of the input that I received from multiple constituencies. I learned the perspectives of many."

Powell was not available for comment, but in an email response to one Powers supporter in May, he expressed thanks for the message and wrote, “We are an academic institution and as such all opinions are not only welcome but encouraged.”

More than a month later, things have calmed down. But the UT community remains vigilant.

On June 18, UT rhetoric and composition professor Richard Cherwitz wrote that the roiling situation at UVA “seems part of a growing epidemic in higher education” in which leaders at top public universities stand up to their governing boards, are forced out, sparking public debate.

In addition to Sullivan, another prominent recent example is Richard Lariviere, who — prior to assuming (and then losing) the presidency of the University of Oregon — is also a former UT administrator. Unlike Sullivan, the public backlash to his firing — attributed to his narrow focus on the university’s interests and alleged lack of concern for the state system as a whole — was not enough to get him reinstated.

Based on the responses of those who took the time to write to the board when they believed Powers’ job was in imminent danger, it seems his supporters would significantly outnumber his detractors if a similar situation occurred at UT. When asked what she thought the odds of that happening were, Perrin said, “I would say, as my father used to say, the situation bears close watching.”

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