Legislators Honor Beleaguered UT President Powers

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

In the midst of ongoing turbulence between the University of Texas System regents and the leadership of its flagship institution, the Texas Senate and House honored University of Texas at Austin President Bill Powers on Monday with resolutions acknowledging his accomplishments and his years of service.

The resolutions passed in both chambers, an honor coming at a time of strain between the university and the board of regents whose members have all been appointed by Gov. Rick Perry. Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst became emotional when he addressed the Senate and Powers, criticizing the regents for undermining Powers and “cases allegedly of character assassination.”

“I believe in reform, and I know Bill Powers believes in reform,” Dewhurst said. “That’s why I’m particularly troubled when I see UT regents go around this man. I see them trying to micromanage the system.”

Dewhurst spoke briefly with the press about anonymous letters containing rumors regarding Powers' family, insinuating that a regent had helped spread them. He wouldn’t discuss the letters' contents or origins, or which regent he was referring to.

“You do what you want to, but you don’t touch families,” Dewhurst said, adding that he would address the issue further on Tuesday.

Sen. Kevin Eltife, R-Tyler and a graduate of UT-Austin, authored Senate Resolution 234. He praised Powers’ leadership and commitment to the school.

“I see in this president a man who shares a love for the university that so many of the current students and former students have for this great institution,” Eltife said. “I see a man who always puts the university first, who always stands up for what he believes in even if it may not be politically popular.”

Powers stands out as a top voice in higher education, said Rep. Dan Branch, R-Dallas, who filed House Resolution 22 and HR 23 to honor recent achievements by the president. Branch chairs the House Higher Education Committee. Powers said he appreciated the honor of the two resolutions and he declined to respond to Dewhurst’s comments about the regents.

“This is extremely nice of the House and the Senate,” Powers said. “I do a lot of work down here” at the Capitol.

The resolutions come in the wake of a lengthy public grilling of Powers during a meeting of the UT System Board of Regents on Feb. 13 that appears to have inflamed simmering tensions between the system leadership and its flagship university.

The questions directed at Powers largely came from a trio of regents — Wallace Hall, Alex Cranberg and Brenda Pejovich — appointed by Gov. Rick Perry in 2011 with the intention of shaking things up. They wondered why Powers had not yet hired a vice president for development despite being instructed to do so, as well as why graduate stipends and undergraduate completion rates had not significantly increased in recent years.

The episode disturbed some UT-Austin supporters, who have been distrustful of the new regents since their arrival on the board.

“My biggest concern is that the board appears to be driving talent away,” said Melinda Hill Perrina former chairwoman of UT-Austin's Development Board and a vocal member of Texas Coalition for Excellence in Higher Education, a group that has been critical of the current regents’ approach. “I’m worried that morale is low, a terrific provost has resigned and the regents are badgering the president.”

Earlier this month, Steven Leslie, UT-Austin's executive vice president and provost, announced his intention to resign and turn his focus to non-administrative activities at the end of August. Powers told the Tribune that the decision was entirely Leslie’s.

The newly opened provost position is one of a handful of administrative posts that need to be filled, including permanent deans for UT’s graduate school and for undergraduate studies.

“I think this has a substantial impact on the ability of the institution not just to hire faculty, but primarily on our ability to hire administrators,” said Richard Cherwitz, a professor in UT’s communications department and the director of the university’s Intellectual Entrepreneurship Program.

Cherwitz is on the search committee for a graduate school dean and said the recent turbulence and its coverage in the press has taken a toll on the process.

“At least two or three people I talked to that I was encouraging to apply were well aware of what was going on in Texas and were concerned about that,” he said, noting that he believed they opted not to apply in large part “because of the precarious position the institution is in.”

He also contends that one of the would-be finalists for the position withdrew after Leslie resigned and speculation about Powers’ position flared up.

Texas Tribune donors or members may be quoted or mentioned in our stories, or may be the subject of them. For a complete list of contributors, click here.